A pile of dirt has sparked controversy in the city of Sunbury, Northumberland County.
Recently, an otherwise civil city council meeting devolved into a shouting match. Councilman Joe Bartello and Mayor David Persing sparred over the city’s stormwater management rules.
“It’s already a law!” Bartello yelled. “Council doesn’t have to vote to get a stormwater plan!”
“Just bring us something that proves they need [a stormwater plan],” Persing fired back.
“I can’t give you more than you already have,” Bartello replied, “You have the codebook.”
“You never gave me a thing!” the mayor shouted back, “What the hell did you give me?”
It turns out shouting matches are not all that uncommon at Sunbury city council meetings, but the controversy over this dirt has been going on for months.
Sunbury is a small city of about 10,000 people along the banks of the Susquehanna River.
The dirt in question is in a rail yard at the northern edge of town surrounded by a tall barbed-wire fence. It covers an acre of an old industrial site. The area is in a floodplain right next to the river and a residential neighborhood.
Councilman Bartello heads the city’s Department of Public Safety. His job includes overseeing code administration.
He’s been asking a lot of questions about this site and not getting many answers. He’s wondering where all the dirt is coming from. He says the ground is roughly six feet higher than it used to be.
Bartello has asked the company hauling in the dirt to give him a stormwater managment plan, in accordance with the city codes.
“There’s really no information,” Bartello says, “We always get the same answer: ‘There’s nothing going on.’”
Bartello says he hasn’t gotten much help from the rest of city government or the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
The DEP declined multiple requests from StateImpact to discuss the site, but a spokesman for the agency says there are no violations and it complies with the law.
Many people in Sunbury disagree, however, and they say they have a good reason to worry.
‘Nauseating’ gas drilling waste
People here are concerned because two years ago this rail yard became a shipping hub for natural gas drilling waste.
Trucks rolled into town and loaded up rail cars with drill cuttings destined for disposal in Ohio. Drill cuttings are waste dirt and rock that can contain chemicals and naturally occurring radioactive materials.
Cora Campbell lives across the street. She says occasionally the trucks would leak.
“Sometimes it was that juicy, that it would fly out over into the street.”
Her neighbor, Geri Hoagland, says the smell got so bad at times that she had to keep all her windows shut.
“[It smelled] sort of like gas and oil,” she says. “It was nauseating.”
The gas waste stopped coming through town last year, but many people believe that’s due to an overall slowdown in drilling, not any regulatory enforcement.
City councilman Joe Bartello agrees.
“DEP surprised me very much,” he says. “I thought they were here to protect the people. But what looks like the non-enforcement of the codes has really left me wondering what DEP’s purpose really is.”
A loophole in federal law
So what laws were allegedly being broken here? And who exactly is to blame?
It turns out, those aren’t easy questions to answer.
The site is owned by a Watsontown trucking and logistics company called Moran Industries. The railroad moving the gas waste was Norfolk Southern. The railroad declined to comment for this story.
Jeff Stroehmann, Vice President of Operations for Moran Industries, wouldn’t discuss the controversy either. He blamed it on political in-fighting.
Stroehmann would only say the company is moving in the dirt with the intention to develop the area. “We are confident there will be a nice reuse on this site.”Moran Industries made news last year, when StateImpact revealed that its owner, John Moran Jr., paid for a vacation on a yacht and private flights for Governor Corbett. Moran and his wife are personal friends of the Corbett’s; they donated over $75,000 to the governor’s last campaign.
Earlier this month, Moran joined Corbett on a 10-day trade mission to South America.
Bartello thinks that’s part of the problem.
“When you see the joint vacations and everything else, from the very top of the state down to the mayor of Sunbury, I’m not really sure why all the inaction, why not the enforcing of our laws?”
The state did respond to residents’ complaints, but in early 2012 —more than year after the gas waste started coming into town— the DEP decided the facility didn’t need a permit.
The agency cited a federal law, known as the Clean Railroads Act of 2008.
The law was designed to close a legal loophole and increase state and local oversight of polluted rail yards across the country. But as Mark Szybist, an attorney with the environmental group PennFuture, explains, the federal law left the loophole open for oil and gas waste.
“[Railroad] transloading facilities that were engaged solely in transloading oil and gas wastes still did not need to get a permit and still were not subject to state and local regulation.”
Although no state permit was needed, the DEP said the facility still had to comply with all Pennsylvania and federal laws.
‘It’s just dirt’
But some people in Sunbury say the site is violating city codes.
Drake Saxton lives about an hour away in Lycoming County, but he grew up in Sunbury and still owns property in the area.
He’s been poring over the city codes and says they’re not being enforced.
Saxton is concerned that when it rains the mystery dirt could be running off into nearby yards or the river. He says the city is supposed to have a stormwater management plan from Moran Industries.
“When I see that my hometown is going to assailed with that kind of pollution,” says Saxton, “It causes [me] to have a lot of angst.”
Sunbury Mayor David Persing says there is nothing improper or illegal going on at the site, although he admits he doesn’t know where the dirt is coming from.
“I got a new dog for Christmas,” Persing says. “He likes to dig holes all the time, and I’m going to put dirt in my [yard], but we don’t ask people where they get the dirt from. It’s just dirt.”
Councilman Bartello says he’s so fed up, he’s decided to run for mayor.
Bartello has also asked Moran Industries to explain the origins of the dirt and supply him with a storm water management plan.
“I’m not asking for anything outrageous,” Bartello says. “It’s in our code books. They knew our code books before they came here.”
So far, he hasn’t gotten an answer.
Instead, a law firm representing Moran filed a Right to Know Law request to comb through Bartello’s city-owned computer.