Jim McNutt/Observer-Reporter Park Burroughs portrait

In his essay in the April 28 issue of the Observer-Reporter, Gary Stout described the decline of history in education. There’s easy proof of that in the actions of our elected representatives, particularly our Pennsylvania legislators.

The natural gas boom we have experienced over the last dozen years or so is not the first here. The oil and gas boom of the 1880s and 1890s brought quick wealth to Southwestern Pennsylvania before it went bust. As the 20th century dawned, our vast coal deposits were exploited to fuel industry. Our legislators then did all they could to enable the plundering of our resources without regard to safety or the environment or to what might happen when the coal and gas that was easy to take was gone.

When the coal was depleted and when mining companies went bankrupt, abandoned mines filled with water, eventually discharging the resulting poison into streams and rivers. Mountains of coal refuse still loom above our landscapes, seeping toxins into our groundwater. The damage to our environment and the money needed to clean it up have been enormous, and guess who is paying for it? We, the taxpayers.

When longwall mining came along in the late 20th century, our lawmakers allowed coal companies to undermine our highways with impunity, leaving the taxpayers to pick up the tab for the damages. Their concern was the present: preserving and growing jobs. They looked no farther into the future than their own re-election.

Mining companies do have to pay damages when private homes are undermined, but the common solution to this is for the company to simply buy the home, let it be damaged and fall into ruin, turning once charming rural areas into wasteland.

The lead story on the front page of the O-R on May 17 concerned the introduction of House Bill 1102, or the “Keystone Energy Enhancement Act.” Among the sponsors is state Republican Rep. Josh Kail, whose district gerrymanders from Beaver County down to southern Washington County. The purpose of the bill is to give 10-year state and local tax exemptions to the energy industry. How, exactly, are our school districts and local municipalities supposed to cope with the growth Kail and others promise and the resulting strain on our roads, police, sewer systems and schools when those new employers are exempt from taxes?

In the Sunday edition two days later, readers learned that 141,000 gallons of chemical-laden fracking waste is being discharged every day into the Monongahela River, from which we get our drinking water. The discharge is being piped by a Rostraver Township landfill to the Belle Vernon sewage treatment plant, which is not equipped to treat anything but sewage. Belle Vernon’s municipal authority has had to hire a law firm in its fight to stop the discharge because the state Department of Environmental Protection has failed to act. Isn’t its purpose to protect the environment? As a result of this inaction, Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone and his Fayette County counterpart have filed for a temporary injunction to stop the flow of wastewater into the river.

It seems our state representatives are consumed by the immediate gratification of jobs, jobs, jobs and oblivious to the short- and long-term effects of resource extraction.

The natural gas boom here is not a bad thing. It has energized our economy, and although gas pollutes, it’s not nearly as detrimental as burning coal. Until we can expand clean sources of energy, gas will do. Coal’s day as the major source of our electricity is over, but there will always be some use for coal. But these resources must be gotten the right way; that is, with the utmost care that our water and air and land are not destroyed.

Our governor and many in Harrisburg would like to impose an extraction tax on the gas industry. But they, too, are focused on the present, on what holes in the state budget that new tax revenue can plug.

They ought, instead, to be looking toward the future. Put those extraction-tax dollars to use in enforcing regulations on the industry and to build a trust fund for when the inevitable bust comes, when the gas is gone and the wells abandoned.

This land was despoiled over more than 100 years, and that is our shameful history. We should learn something from it for the sake of future generations.

Park Burroughs is retired editor of the Observer-Reporter and lives in South Franklin Township.

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