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White: DEP Denied Open Records Request for Air Quality Data

State Rep. Jesse White said, 'Either DEP did a shoddy job in conducting the testing and doesn’t want to be embarrassed, or the data shows something the DEP doesn't want the public to see.'

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3:58 p.m. to include response from DEP.

said to consider his mind blown.

The state Department of Environmental Protection denied the Cecil lawmaker's open records request for air-quality test data from the agency's investigation of odors at Cornerstone Care—a non-profit medical clinic in Burgettstown.

Cornerstone has been closed since May 25, when it was forced to evacuate the facility for a third time. 

White said the letter, dated June 18, and signed by the DEP's open records officer, stated that the DEP's investigation concerning the odors at Cornerstone was "non-criminal" in nature and was exempted from the state’s Right to Know Law. 

White said he plans to appeal DEP's decision to withhold the information within the 15-day period the Right to Know law provides.

Although the Pennsylvania Right to Know law allows an agency to withhold such data, the DEP is not required to withhold the information, and could release it if it chose to do so, the lawmaker explained.

White pointed to Section 506(c) of the right-to-know law, which indicates an agency such as the DEP may exercise its discretion to make any otherwise exempt record accessible for inspection and copying if the disclosure is not prohibited by law or court order, not protected by a privilege, and the agency head determines that the public interest favoring access outweighs any individual, agency or public interest that may favor restriction of access.

"If this isn't a textbook example of the public interest benefiting from the release of information, I don't know what is," White said. "The data DEP is withholding from the public can help Cornerstone find and eliminate the problem once and for all, and it blows my mind to see DEP's role fundamentally shift from being part of Cornerstone’s solution to being part of the problem."

The lawmaker continued: "Playing political games with the health and well-being of Pennsylvania (residents) is no way for a state agency to act, and I will continue urging DEP to stop hiding behind the Right-to-Know law and release its findings."

The legislator and state , D-Canonsburg, received a second analysis summary of the test results, but that the analysis has "opened the door to even more unanswered questions about what the DEP knows and what other information may be unearthed through the release of the entire test results," White said in a release.

"The second analysis, which is disturbing on multiple levels, mysteriously reveals the presence of two new chemical compounds, carbon disulfide and methyl tert-butyl ether, neither of which were mentioned in the first DEP summary," he said. "There is simply no way the DEP can justify their conclusions scientifically. Among the many concerns, there is real evidence to suggest DEP did not conduct a thorough walk through prior to testing to identify potential sources; they reported results on acute exposure of one hour instead of a more realistic chronic exposure; they used standards not subject to peer scientific review; and failed to disclose levels of chemicals under the DEP's own reporting standards, which are arbitrary at best."

White argued that the raw testing data—including the quality control and quality assurance information by which the tests were conducted—is essential for independent scientists and researchers trying to find the source of the problems at Cornerstone.

"At this point, there are only two logical possibilities: Either DEP did a shoddy job in conducting the testing and doesn’t want to be embarrassed, or the data shows something the DEP doesn't want the public to see," White said. "Either way, the DEP has a moral obligation to the people of Pennsylvania to release the raw data and let sunshine be the best disinfectant for whatever is ailing Cornerstone Care."

Cornerstone Care is currently struggling to find a new temporary home by June 30, which White says reinforces the urgent need for DEP to release the data.

"Real people are struggling because the DEP decided to cower behind the law instead of doing the right thing," White said. "How can anyone with common sense not look at the situation and wonder what DEP is trying to hide from the public?"

Reached for comment Monday, Solobay said that while he, too, is frustrated on behalf of Cornerstone, and has tried to make calls on its behalf to find temporary housing, which he believes the DEP did its due diligence in the case.

The Canonsburg lawmaker said he has met with the concerned parties since the issue surfaced, and that DEP has promptly gotten back to him on issues related to the matter, adding that air quality test so far "have for the most part come up with nothing."

As for whether or not the DEP is withholding information that could be beneficial to the public good—as White has argued?

"I have the utmost faith in the world that DEP would not withhold information beneficial to the public good," Solobay said, noting that department officials have told him it is an ongoing investigation.

Reached for comment and clarification Monday afternoon, DEP's Harrisburg office referred Patch to a local DEP spokesman, who referred calls on the matter back to the Capitol office. A message left there was not immediately returned.

However, in an email sent to Canon-McMillan Patch a short time later, the local DEP spokesman, John Poister, attached a copy of the denial letter.

"We will have no other comment at this time," the email continued.

Editor's Note: To view White's original Right to Know request, as well as the DEP's denial, click on the attached PDF files.

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