Gov. Corbett and ex-environmental chief bought vacation homes in states with no fracking
By now, you may have heard that Gov. Tom Corbett failed to disclose an out-of-state vacation home on his annual financial disclosure form. That home was a $265,000 beachfront property in Hilton Head Island, South Carolina.
When the governor was called out on this, he told a story, then changed it. First, he claimed he didn’t list it because he was still in the process of closing when filings were due—but public records obtained by State Impact, a project of NPR, noted the deed and mortgage documents were filed December 5, 2012. His spokesperson then claimed the governor didn’t understand the disclosure form—even though he’s, well, a lawyer.
Then, late yesterday, Corbett claimed that even though he bought the home late last year, he thought he wasn’t required to disclose it until this year. The governor and his wife have been vacationing in Hilton Head for several years. “My wife finally twisted my arm into getting a place,” he told the Washington Observer-Reporter.
Let’s set aside the disclosure issue for a moment, because there’s an underlying question here:
With the governor so gung-ho on fracking the commonwealth, often telling audiences we’re going to surpass Texas, is it weird to anyone else that he just bought an expensive vacation home in one of the only states in the region that doesn’t have natural gas resources—and, therefore, cannot be fracked?
Or that his former environmental protection secretary, Michael Krancer, himself spent $1 million on a vacation home in Vermont, a state that banned fracking over a year ago?
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Earlier this year, the Center for Environmental Health released a study looking at the health risks that fracking chemicals—632 of which are used in natural gas fracking fluids—could have on pregnant women and children, finding that many of those chemicals could be associated with low birth weight, birth defects, respiratory problems, cancer and fertility problems.
An Environmental Protection Agency report in 2010 noted that in a community health survey of 16 individuals in a community where several wells were contaminated due to oil and gas resource development, 81 percent had experienced health problems: breathing difficulties, sinus problems, throat irritation, wheezing, bronchitis and/or nasal irritation.
Natural gas interests have poured upwards of $8 million into Pennsylvania’s legislators’ pockets. Meanwhile, ProPublica reported in 2010 that “hundreds of millions of gallons of the wastewater utilized in extracting natural gas” were dumped into streams across the state. ProPublica also reported that those chemicals could potentially be harmful:
While the state Department of Environmental Protection called for the fluids to be sent through municipal treatment plants, those facilities are largely unable to remove the salts and minerals, also known as Total Dissolved Solids (TDS), from the waste… [R]esearchers still don’t know whether high TDS levels are harmful to humans or wildlife. But the analysis found that some public water utilities had exceeded the federal limit for levels of cancer-causing trihalomethanes, which can form when chlorine in drinking-water treatment systems combines with bromide, which can be present in drilling waste.
Yep, Pennsylvania’s scenic waterways—where, as it happens, Gov. Corbett took a kayak trip just last weekend to showcase the state’s tourism industry ahead of the fall season. And yet those aren’t the shores where Corbett wanted to spend his own money vacationing.
“In general, it makes sense that property values would go down because you are essentially moving your property into an industrial zone,” says Myron Arnowitt, the Pennsylvania State Director of Clean Water Action. “If you look at real estate near industrial zones you generally find these are worse off areas compared to properties without industry.”
$265,000 for an out-of-state property is an investment, not a casual expenditure, especially for a public servant. So you’d think a smart public servant, who doesn’t necessarily make the same income as a private-sector lawyer, would be eager to make sure his vacation home would be someplace where it would be unlikely to lose value.
Well, what do you know: “Homes with frack leases not only lose value, [some] insurance companies are not willing to insure the properties either,” says Gloria Forouzan of the Southwest Pennsylvania grassroots group Marcellus Protest.
As it happens, the Federal Housing Administration’s guidelines for lending prohibit financing within 300 feet of a planned drilling site, as the FHA told Grist: “FHA is primarily concerned with the health and safety of the occupants of the dwelling. If the property is subject to smoke, fumes, offensive noise and odors, etc. to the extent they would endanger the health of the occupants then the property is ineligible. FHA is also concerned with the risk to the insurance fund. So if the property is subject to those same items and the health of the occupants is not endangered, but the marketability of the property is compromised, the property may not be eligible for FHA insurance.”
And then: Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac prohibit property owners from signing a gas lease.
And then: There’s the market value! A Duke University study, in collaboration with the environmental thinktank Resources for the Future, found in 2012 that Pennsylvania homeowners actually lost up to 24 percent of their property’s value if they were within a mile and a quarter of a shale gas well. The homes studied were in southwest Pennsylvania, in Washington County, in which about half the properties used piped-in water.
In case you haven’t caught on by now, here’s the thing about South Carolina, where our pro-fracking governor has bought his new vacation home: No wells. No potential for wells, ever.
And here’s the thing about Vermont, where the governor’s ex-environmental chief has bought his vacation home: No wells. The potential exists, but the state has banned them.
“Generally people with money, like Corbett and Krancer, do not live or vacation near the pollution problems that they are eager to promote like gas drilling,” adds Arnowitt. “But for everyone else in Pennsylvania, this is a growing problem.”
Note: This article has been updated to include comment from Myron Arnowitt.
Randy LoBasso owns zero vacation homes. You can follow him on Twitter: @RandyLoBasso