*UPDATE III* State Rep.’s Claims Don’t Pass the Smell Test

UPDATE III (5/25/2012, 10:53am): Getting the facts out about the situation at Cornerstone Care must have rattled State Rep. Jesse White’s cage, based on this comment he posted on the Energy In Depth website:

“…I have gone out of my way not to implicate anyone or any specific cause…”

You can scroll to the bottom of this page for his full comments, and EID’s reply. In the meantime, let’s do some fact checking to see if Rep. White really has been acting like a fair-minded public official.

On May 13, Rep. White sent a letter to Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection demanding a “thorough investigation” of the odor reported inside the Cornerstone building. But in the same letter, Rep. White singles out the oil and gas industry as the most likely cause:

“I am writing this strongly-worded letter with regard to the ongoing investigation of the Cornerstone Care community health clinic …

I would like some more information regarding … all oil and gas operations in the area … [and] whether those operators were informed prior to testing.”

No other potential source for the odor is mentioned in Rep. White’s letter. Not the spray painting operation across the road or the poorly stored construction materials on site. But Rep. White’s effort to pressure DEP investigators to focus on the oil and gas industry doesn’t end there. He also demands they test for 74 different chemical substances, and even provides a list.

So where does acetone, the substance people say they smelled on the building’s second floor, rank on Rep. White’s list? It’s number 64. How about methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, which has no odor? It’s number three.

Take a look at Rep. White’s laundry list of chemicals and decide for yourself whether he’s working for his constituents or helping a trial lawyer somewhere conduct a fishing expedition against the oil and gas industry on the taxpayer’s dime.

We’ve also noticed Rep. White uses social media to engage his constituents, rally supporters and solicit campaign contributions. In fact, from Facebook, you can learn a lot about where Rep. White gets his “facts” about oil and gas, and how they shape his opinions of the industry.

One of Rep. White’s most recent posts deals with Steve Hvozdovich, spokesman for the activist group Clean Water Action, who told the Pittsburgh Tribune Review that the men and women of the natural gas industry are like bank robbers. That’s right, Hvozdovich called natural gas workers violent criminals.

“If somebody robs the bank and puts the public in danger, police don’t just pull the guy over and say, ‘Give the money back and say you’re sorry, and everything will be resolved,'” said Steve Hvozdovich, a Clean Water Action policy associate…

In the same story, the DEP rejected the CWA spokesman’s comments, and so did Range Resources, one of the biggest gas developers in the Marcellus Shale. And so would any fair-minded public official. After all, you don’t have to like the people of the oil and gas industry, but calling them dangerous felons is crossing the line. So whose side does Rep. White take in this debate?

That’s right, Rep. White defended Hvozdovich, the environmental activist who thinks there’s something criminal about working for the natural gas industry. His opinion means more to Rep. White, it would seem, than the professional judgment of DEP’s regulators, inspectors and scientists. That’s really disturbing, because it suggests this state lawmaker also believes there’s something inherently wrong – even criminal – about the jobs and economic growth made possible by developing Pennsylvania’s abundant shale gas resources.

Now, about those trial lawyers. It turns out Rep. White has his own law firm, and one of the attorneys there, JP Fridy, has been following the Cornerstone Care case pretty closely:

Rep. White was right. The odors in the building aren’t the only thing that smells funny here. There’s also the stench of frivolous litigation, and it’s getting worse by the day.

UPDATE II (5/18/2012, 11:16am): Some new photos have just surfaced that shed more light on what’s causing the odors at the Cornerstone Care building in Washington County, Pa.

To recap, there’s an auto body shop with a junkyard and spray painting facilities across the road, and there was recent construction in the building. Spray painting cars involves the use of acetone-based solvents, and the doctors, staff and patients say the odors that forced the temporary closure of the medical center smelled like acetone, or acetone-based products such as lacquer or nail polish.

But check out these photos from the parking lot behind the medical center. They show some of the building materials used in the recent construction work, which could also produce pungent odors. These materials are also poorly stored:

There are paint cans, sealant bottles, large drums labeled “corrosive” and even gasoline tanks improperly stored within a few feet of the building. There are also bottles of Quikrete, which contains acrylic polymer. According to the product’s Material Safety Data Sheet, here’s what can happen if it’s used or stored carelessly:

Inhalation of vapor or mist can cause the following: headache, nausea, irritation of nose, throat and lungs.

The MSDS further warns that acrylic polymers, if they aren’t stored correctly, can undergo “thermal decomposition” and release “hazardous” acrylic monomers. Here’s what Arkema Inc., a major chemicals manufacturer, tells customers about acrylic monomers and how they smell:

Acrylic monomers have very low odor thresholds which means that we can smell these chemicals at very low concentrations. Their odor thresholds range from 0.1 ppb (parts per billion) to 100 ppb, depending on the product, therefore only a small amount of released material can result in an odor.

So, a small amount of material from the recent construction work is capable of producing a strong odor inside the building. The same goes for improperly stored materials just outside the building. Sounds like any investigation of a bad smell that’s limited to the second floor of the Cornerstone Care building should first be focused on nearby sources, like leftover construction materials and the spray painting operation about 350 feet across the road.

Not according to State Rep. Jesse White, who keeps pushing the storyline to the news media that a gas well about a mile away is the real culprit. White also continues to pressure the Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection to ignore the evidence:

Because of the media attention surrounding the closure, DEP announced it found no connection of the problems to drilling activity. I am not saying that oil and gas activity caused the problems at Cornerstone, but how could DEP make such a statement without doing proper investigation and testing?

So, let’s get this straight. After ginning up as much media coverage as possible on Cornerstone Care, Rep. White now says media coverage is the reason the DEP didn’t find any evidence to support his allegations? Here’s a simpler explanation – the DEP hasn’t found any facts to support Rep. White’s allegations because the facts don’t support Rep. White’s allegations. And while this charade continues, the doctors, patients and staff of Cornerstone Care will be denied real answers.

UPDATE (5/15/12, 3:21pm ET) This story just crossed the line from silly into the truly bizarre, because the temporary closure of Cornerstone Care clinic just played a starring role today on NPR’s Morning Edition. Less than 24 hours after EID posted its own deep-dive investigation of the clinic, showing quite clearly that natural gas development is the least likely cause of the odors on the second floor of the Cornerstone building, NPR’s Rob Stein spent almost eight minutes of air time insinuating that the gas industry is responsible – doing his level-best along the way to avoid mention of any detail that could lead folks to question that thesis. To wit:

The whole place reeked — like someone had spilled a giant bottle of nail polish remover. …

Now, no one knows whether the gas drilling has anything to do with the problems at the clinic. It could easily turn out to be something completely unrelated. There’s a smelting plant down the road and old coal mines everywhere. …

So they’ve moved the clinic to temporary offices until someone figures out what’s going on.

If this is supposed to be a piece of investigative journalism, then someone forgot the part where the reporter actually investigates. Because there’s no mention that the odors were first complained about before drilling began, no mention that things are fine in the dental practice on the first floor, no mention of recent construction in the building, and no mention that methane – the primary constituent of natural gas – is colorless, odorless and tasteless. NPR also fails to tell its listeners that the gas well in question is almost a mile from the building, and leaves out the fact that a junkyard and auto repair shop – where cars are spray painted – sits just 350 feet away. Remember, people are complaining of something that smells like acetone, and acetone is a widely used product in spray painting.

Of course, maybe NPR does know about the spray painting that goes on across the road from Cornerstone Care, and other important facts that suggest natural gas development has nothing to do with the odors. But then, disclosing those facts might spoil the “mystery” story that NPR is trying to stand up, with the help of gas industry critics like State Rep. Jesse White.

—Original post from May 14, 2012—

Everyone knows the story of the boy who cried “wolf” – but have you heard the one about the state representative who cried “gas well”?

At Energy In Depth, we’ve investigated and debunked all kinds of slurs, myths and allegations – far too many, and far too frequently, for our liking. But every once in a while, we encounter a rush to judgment that’s more than just wrong – it’s plain silly. Consider the following effort to implicate shale development in the temporary closure of a medical facility in southwestern Pennsylvania, as reported earlier this month by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Cornerstone Care’s Medical & Dental Plaza in Burgettstown, Washington County, was evacuated Friday for the third time since the end of March due to strong industrial odors that sickened patients and employees.

County and state agencies, and air quality consultants hired by the Cornerstone, can’t find the source of the odors, and Robert MtJoy, Cornerstone chief executive officer, said he will close the medical clinic until they do. …

Cornerstone serves approximately 1,000 patients on the second floor of the two-story building along Route 18 and employs 50 workers. The Cornerstone dental clinic, on the first floor of the building, has not experienced any indoor odors and will remain open. …

Mr. Poister said the DEP air program workers did a “walk through” of the medical facility April 27 as well as the closest Marcellus well a quarter mile away but did not smell the odor at either place. …

Mr. MtJoy said the Cornerstone building is “surrounded” by Marcellus Shale gas operations …

State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said he expects the DEP to do a better job responding to the odor complaints, and said the department’s oil and gas bureau at the regional office and in Harrisburg haven’t been responsive.

“DEP’s response has been unacceptable,” Mr. White said. “My district just lost one of the only places we have to provide health care and someone needs to provide some answers. Where’s the accountability?”

The closure of a health facility – even if temporary – is a serious matter, and one that warrants a serious examination of the causes. Such an examination would likely focus to start on the building itself, where recent construction work has been taking place; it might also take into consideration the fact there is no odor in the dental clinic on the first floor.

Another interesting fact: According to several recent news articles, patients had complained about the odor issues in the building before any Marcellus wells were drilled at all. That’s right, people were complaining about the odor before the well was even drilled. We should also mention that the well itself resides almost a mile away from the building – about four times the distance initially reported.

DEP officials have monitored the air quality outside the building and could not detect the odor. DEP officials have also visited the well site and found no evidence that the operations there are responsible for the smell. It’s important to note that methane, the primary constituent of natural gas, is “colorless, odorless, and tasteless,” according to the Energy Information Administration.

But let’s assume for a moment that the source of the reported “lacquer-like odors,” or “acetone or nail-polish removal smell,” lies outside the building. The way these news reports read, a well pad almost a mile away apparently is the only possible outdoor source that could cause these “industrial odors” to exist. But what if we told you there was an auto repair shop across the road with its own junk yard?


And what if the same premises had facilities on-site for painting cars? It’s about 350 feet from the medical center, and it probably uses some acetone-based products, based on this information from Dow Chemical:

As a solvent, acetone is frequently incorporated in solvent systems or “blends,” especially as the low-boiling component of “high-low” blends. Many of these acetone-solvent blends are used in the formulation of “high-solids” cellulose ester lacquers for automotive and furniture finishes. They also are used in acrylic automotive lacquers, particularly when the acrylics are modified with nitrocellulose. Acetone, which has a dilution ratio of 4.5, may be used to reduce the viscosity of lacquer solutions. …  Acetone is widely used in the textile industry for degreasing wool and degumming silk. Also, large quantities are used in paint, lacquer, and varnish stripping compounds, and in nail polish removers.

In fact, acetone is used as a thinner that makes it easier to pump automotive paint and lacquer through the nozzle of a spray gun. It can also be used to clean the spray gun after a paint job is complete. Indeed, environmental regulators have encouraged auto body shops to use more acetone because, unlike many other solvents, the fumes from acetone do not contribute to smog formation in the air. That said, acetone-based thinners can still cause acute health impacts if those fumes are inhaled in high concentrations. For instance, here’s the health warning from the Material Safety Data Sheet of one thinning product:

Vapor harmful. May cause dizziness; headache; watering of eyes; irritation of respiratory tract; weakness; drowsiness; nausea; numbness in fingers, arms and legs; depression of central nervous system; loss of appetite; fatigue; hallucinations; light headedness; visual disturbances; giddiness and intoxication; sleepiness; cough and dyspnea; cold, clammy extremities; diarrhea; vomiting; dilation of pupils; spotted vision.

So, to recap: The CEO of the clinic temporarily closes his facility, citing an “acetone-like” smell nearby. His default reaction, and that of his state representative, is to blame the existence of a natural gas well about 5,000 feet away. Notwithstanding the fact that an auto body shop/junk yard where acetone is used in significant quantities resides barely 350 feet away from his front porch. Or the fact that there were complaints about the acetone-like odor before the well in question had even been drilled.

 Of course, only the second floor of the clinic has been hit with the odor, and that’s the only level of the building that faces the road. The first-floor dental clinic, where no odors have been reported, was built behind an embankment that would block any fumes that drift across the road.

Plus, there’s also the possibility that the odor is coming from inside the building if one of the contractors involved in the construction work happened to leave some painting products behind. And yet, almost all the speculation focuses on a natural gas well pad almost a mile away, and the offending odor was first reported before drilling even started at that location.

It sure sounds (or smells) like someone is pushing the “blame a gas well” storyline to the news media. Perhaps someone who’s a critic of the oil and gas industry whose job security depends on getting quoted in newspapers?

State Rep. Jesse White, quick to upbraid DEP in the press for failing to blame a gas well for the odor, seems to fits that description pretty well. According to AOL Energy, he’s “an outspoken opponent of the state’s gas industry,” and let’s face it, elected officials are always looking for ways to win the media’s attention. Well, it seems some of Rep. White’s constituents already concluded he’s the one pushing this story, based on this statement from his campaign website:

Let’s stop right here for a minute, because I know the response forming in many peoples’ [sic] minds, and I want to address it right here and now. First, I am in no way saying that oil and gas activity caused the problems at Cornerstone Care. I am not a scientist, and although I know a lot more than I did a few years ago about the drilling process, I don’t pretend to be one. Second, I am not trying to whip people into a frenzy to oppose the natural gas drilling. …

So we have a system where the DEP Oil and Gas Unit is the only group who can investigate these types of problems, and although I cannot say with certainty the problems at Cornerstone are related to drilling, no one can say with certainty that they are not caused by drilling. You would think the Oil and Gas Unit would be quick to respond, if for no other reason to dispel any concerns right away, especially for a high-profile public health facility situated in the dead center of the Marcellus Shale boom. …

The odors in the building aren’t the only thing that smells funny here.

We think that Rep. White doth protest too much. If you read the news clips above, you’ll see he’s absolutely blaming oil and gas activity for the problems at Cornerstone Care, and worse still, he’s demanding that the DEP focus its entire investigation on the oil and gas industry, even though there’s no evidence suggesting that’s where the odor came from (or the fact that the monitoring of indoor air quality isn’t even part of DEP’s job description). Remember, people in the building had reported the odor before drilling even commenced.

Unfortunately, Rep. White seems more interested in pursuing a personal political agenda than finding the actual cause of the problems at Cornerstone Care. By insisting that everyone involved stay focused on the oil and gas industry, at the exclusion of all else, when other culprits are much more obvious and likely, he’s just getting in the way of a real examination by the DEP and the owners and tenants of the building. Sadly, that probably means it will take longer for the problems at the medical center to be identified and fixed, which is something Rep. White’s constituents might be disappointed to hear.


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