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Companies accused of water pollution during Washington County gas pipeline construction

The state attorney general announced Wednesday criminal charges relating to Clean Streams Law violations during the 2015 construction of natural gas transmission lines in Washington County.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said a statewide grand jury recommended the charges against National Fuel Gas Supply Corp. of Williamsville, N.Y., and subcontractor Southeast Directional Drilling of Casa Grande, Ariz.

The companies are accused of polluting an unnamed tributary to St. Patrick’s Run as well as groundwater at Route 22 near 121 Campbell Road in Robinson Township.

Shapiro said Southeast Directional Drilling employees testified that their supervisors told them to “look the other way’” about a small leak, not report the incidents and hide these incidents from the project’s daily reports.

A Washington County resident also testified about noticing a stream on his property turning gray and cloudy on the day the drilling fluid leaked, Shapiro said. He said the property owner can no longer use his drinking water well because of the pollution.

The charges against National Fuel were filed Tuesday before Senior District Judge Larry Hopkins in Cecil Township.

National Fuel could not be reached Wednesday afternoon for comment.


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Wolf administration officials grilled in court over closing orders

The shutdown orders and business waivers issued by the Wolf administration after the coronavirus pandemic reached Pennsylvania came under scrutiny in U.S. District Court in Pittsburgh Wednesday as part of a lawsuit filed by Washington, Greene, Fayette and Butler counties.

It was the second and final day of testimony in the case. Last week, business owners and elected officials testified how the shutdown orders harmed businesses in those counties and asserted that the waiver system that allowed some businesses to remain open in the early weeks of the pandemic was arbitrary and capricious. The suit argues that the shutdown orders violated the constitutional rights of Pennsylvanians and is asking that Gov. Tom Wolf and Rachel Levine, the commonwealth’s health secretary, be barred from enforcing them. The suit is also asking for an end to the waiver system.

The suit is not seeking monetary damages.

Throughout the day, lawyers for the plaintiffs tried to portray administration officials as lacking in public health knowledge and acting inconsistently when deciding which businesses should open or close. Administration officials countered that they were responding to a once-in-a-century pandemic by following recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, copying measures that had been implemented in other states and even looking back at how localities responded to the 1918 flu pandemic.

Sam Robinson, a deputy chief of staff for the governor, said a group that made policy recommendations, said, “We were trying to respond very quickly regarding a public health emergency that had not been seen in the commonwealth or nationally in 100 years.”

He said it was not “a formalized group,” and no minutes were kept of the meetings. When discussing a more recent decision to limit restaurant capacity to 25% for indoor dining, and limiting gatherings to 25 people indoors or 250 people outdoors, they looked at models that had been developed in states like Colorado, Florida, Texas and Louisiana and developed a plan “that we thought would make the most sense in Pennsylvania.”

When asked by attorney Thomas King whether he was aware of a specific wedding celebration within the commonwealth that caused a COVID-19 outbreak, Robinson said he was not aware of one, but “we have a significant amount of information about how the virus spreads when people are densely packed together.”

Robinson conceded that the stay-at-home order issued by Wolf did not mean that police should stop people if they were traveling outside their homes, and acknowledged that the governor participated in a Black Lives Matter protest in Harrisburg in June in contradiction to his own order, but that he was “trying to show support for a cause, the eradication of racism.”

Neil Weaver, executive deputy secretary in the Department of Community and Economic Development, said that he and other officials used codes in the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) to help guide decision-making on whether businesses qualified as life-sustaining or not. When businesses would apply for waivers, he said they would use information provided by the businesses to help determine if they qualified.

“It depended on the information provided by the business,” Weaver said. “If they did not indicate they were life-sustaining, then no.”

Weaver said some businesses would apply multiple times for waivers, and those requests were “slowing the process for getting the waivers approved and getting them out the door.”

The intent of the governor’s stay-at-home orders “was to reduce the amount of interaction between individuals,” according to Sarah Boateng, executive deputy secretary at the Pennsylvania Department of Health. She noted that New Zealand put a strict shutdown order in place when COVID-19 first hit, and they now have no cases, “which they attribute to that mitigation and the separation of individuals.”

All of the testimony and cross-examination was carried out virtually.

Judge William S. Stickman IV will issue a declaratory judgment in the case. The plaintiffs are hoping the case will be forwarded to the U.S. Supreme Court, and it will overturn a ruling by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court that upheld Wolf and Levine’s authority to issue orders during the pandemic.


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COVID-19 deaths rise in Allegheny County

Allegheny County announced eight new COVID-19 deaths Wednesday as positive case counts continued to rise in most counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.

The county also announced 96 new cases after a string of days when that number stretched into triple digits and into the 300s.

“Unfortunately we have at least another year of dealing with this virus,” Allegheny Health Department Director Debra Bogen said Wednesday.

There are early signs that mitigation efforts put in place more than three weeks ago might be working, Bogen said.

The COVID-19 test positivity rate has fallen from 12% when the county’s mitigation order was issued to under 6% Wednesday, Allegheny County Executive Rich Fitzgerald said.

“It’s really a credit to this community,” Fitzgerald said.

Allegheny County announced Wednesday evening that it has created a COVID Field Response Team. Starting today, the team will visit businesses to see if they are following safety precautions including the state’s universal masking order, recent orders regarding bars and restaurants, occupancy restrictions and physical distancing requirements

During each visit, team members will complete a checklist and provide a copy of that checklist and education materials to management on site. The business’ name, date of the visit and a copy of the checklist will be posted to the county’s website. The site will be accessible through the county’s COVID-19 page, https://alleghenycounty.us/cororavirus. The first checklists are not expected to be published until Friday.

Complaints regarding establishments that are violating the health department order may be made through the Allegheny County Support Center webform (select Request a Service, then health department to begin) or by calling the Information Center at 412-350-INFO (412-350-4636).

Meanwhile, Washington County added 11 new cases of the virus, taking its total Wednesday to 603. Fayette County’s case count reached 288 after nine new cases were announced that day. Greene County stood at 91 with no new cases reported.

Bars that don’t sell food were still under a state order to close to help prevent the spread of the disease. Some of them began to offer dollar hot dogs to customers as a loophole to remain open, Gov. Tom Wolf said Tuesday.


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Testimony: Son, father said, 'I love you'; a short time later, one was dead

Two witnesses to events surrounding the fatal shooting of a Hanover Township resident described at a preliminary hearing Wednesday a confrontation between father and son July 3 before the father was to depart for a fishing trip.

Ironically, Joseph Robert Warrick Sr., 46, of Florence, and his son, Joseph Robert Warrick Jr., 22, known as Joey, expressed their love for each other during what turned out to be minutes before the father’s death.

Warrick Sr. asked his son to smoke marijuana with him that afternoon, and when the dad could not find a vape pen, the father quickly became agitated and went to his bedroom to look for it, according to Warrick Jr.’s friend, Lawrence Stevens of Burgettstown, who was at the Warrick home on his way to eating a late lunch.

Warrick Sr., known as J.R., accused his son of either stealing the vape pen or giving it away, Stevens testified, saying Warrick Sr. “kind of got into Joe (Jr.’s) face .... They got really heated and started going at each other.”

At about this time, Renee Wolansky, Warrick Sr.’s girlfriend, returned from work and when she, too, raised her voice, Warrick Jr. told her to shut up, stoking the father’s anger.

The son called his father bipolar, Wolansky testified, later noting she was not aware this was a condition for which Warrick Sr. had been medically diagnosed.

She did tell the judge, “He had a temper.”

The son flung $50 at his father in exchange for the missing vape pen.

A physical clash ensued in the garage of their home in the Burgettstown area. Warrick Jr. fended off his father, and the son reached for a holstered gun.

“As soon as Joey pulled it out, it discharged and he shot his dad. His dad was on his hands and knees holding his chest,” testified Stevens, who left the Hanover Acres premises and called 911.

Wolansky was halfway up steps from the garage when she heard a gunshot.

“I turned around and Joey still had the gun. He was bringing it down to put it into its holster,” she demonstrated from the witness stand, extending her arm and pointing her forefinger.

“I ran down,” she continued. “I almost fell down the steps trying to get to my boyfriend.”

When she described looking into Warrick Sr.’s vacant eyes, her voice broke.

Both Stevens and Wolansky testified they had seen the men argue previously, but not engage in tussling or exchange blows before that day.

Stevens described his friend, whom he had known since childhood, as “a happy-go-lucky guy, one of the best persons I’ve ever known.” The gun Warrick Jr. had with him that day, a .38 Special, was a recent purchase, according to Stevens, not for protection, but for sport.

Christopher Blackwell, Warrick Jr.’s attorney, after the hearing at which District Judge Gary Havelka presided, called the circumstances “a family tragedy,” but said, “There’s evidence to suggest self-defense. The victim had been having some violent mood swings; he’s the one who initiates the argument.

“And now the dad is physically attacking his son. He’s challenging, ‘Be a man, Let’s go outside.’”

Havelka held all charges against Warrick Jr.: criminal homicide, aggravated assault, simple assault, making terroristic threats and recklessly endangering another person.

Assistant District Attorney John Friedmann noted in a brief closing argument that the son did not aid his father after the gun discharged or seek help.

The first responder, Hanover Township police Officer Renee Maddex, was dispatched at 3:55 p.m. Wolansky ordered Warrick Jr. from the home she shared with father and son, and when he emerged, Maddex detained him.

Warrick Jr. asked, “Is he alive? I didn’t mean to shoot him. Is he alive?” Maddex testified. “He was upset. It looked like he was trying to hold back from crying.”

The firearm, which Maddex described as “some kind of revolver,” was lying on a table.

Washington County Coroner Timothy Warco pronounced Warrick Sr. dead of a through-and-through gunshot wound of the chest.

Warrick Jr. monitored the courthouse proceeding via video from the county jail, where he is being held without bond.

Friedmann said after the hearing that the district attorney’s office can decide whether to pursue a murder or manslaughter charge against Warrick Jr. before his formal arraignment, which could take place as soon as next month.