David Hess, longtime Pa. environmental official, reflects on his career and the rise of fracking
In July 2002, 18 miners working at the Quecreek mine in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, entered a chamber 240 feet below ground and accidentally broke through the wall of an abandoned, flooded mine, unleashing millions of gallons of trapped water.
In the ensuing chaos, half the group was able to escape above ground; the other nine became trapped and fled to a space reportedly only four feet tall to seek refuge from the water.
Mark Schweiker, Pennsylvania’s governor at the time, remembers the moment well and says the outcome over four tense days was a tribute to a career civil servant who had risen to run the state’s Department of Environmental Protection: David Hess.
“The instinct of Secretary Hess to quickly assemble the needed equipment and encourage the deep mine rescue unit to essentially say, ‘Don’t worry about procurement policy and cost, acquire what you need to affect this rescue—waste not one minute,’ was ultra important,” Schweiker recalled in a recent interview.
Hess’ career coincided with numerous policy achievements and emergency responses: Less than a year before the Quecreek mine disaster he remembers an aide finding a Bible strewn in the wreckage of United Flight 93 that crashed on 9/11 in Stony Creek Township.
But now, 20-odd years after Hess retired, lawmakers and environmentalists say his lasting legacy as an environmental champion in Pennsylvania revolves around his blog, the prosaically named PA Environmental Digest. The blog sports a mid-2000s web aesthetic that belies uncompromising coverage of Pennsylvania’s environment and its energy policy.
Hess is prolific, covering the good, the bad and the ugly, as one longtime resident of Pennsylvania put it, with a scope, nuance, and workman-like commitment to draping historical context over today’s news that would make some journalists blush.
Once the most powerful environmental regulator in Pennsylvania, Hess spends a lot of his time these days birddogging a destructive force he never saw coming during all his years in Harrisburg: hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking.
“We had no clue that this train was coming during our time,” Hess said, his round face folding into a frown, and his gentle but firm voice becoming somber.
Pennsylvanians are not the only ones who benefit from Hess’ reporting — legislators and activists say his blog is unmatched, calling it a vital resource for anyone concerned about the state of Pennsylvania’s environment.
Hess follows the global fight against climate change and believes the fracking industry — which produces billions of gallons of toxic, radioactive “wastewater” and leaks volatile organic compounds and the super-polluting greenhouse gas methane into Pennsylvania’s air — is the defining environmental issue for this generation of Pennsylvanians.
“It affects the entire landscape of Pennsylvania,” he said. “Some critical people aren’t paying attention to what’s being learned.”
Doing the Dirty Work
Finding a career can begin with simply supporting Mother Nature. In the spring of 1970, David Hess, then in high school, joined millions of other Americans celebrating the country’s inaugural Earth Day, created to help draw awareness to deteriorating environmental conditions across the U.S. as a result of unchecked industrial pollution.
The event was celebrated with such fervor that it helped push Congress to create the Environmental Protection Agency and pass several other landmark pieces of environmental legislation later that year.
Hess, then 18, rode his budding passion for protecting the environment to a long, decorated career in Pennsylvania’s environmental regulatory agencies. From 1977 to 2003, when he retired, Hess was involved in almost every piece of major environmental policy enacted in Pennsylvania.
When Hess first began working as a fledgling environmental regulator, taking internships at Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Resources (a predecessor to the state’s DEP) during his summers between semesters at Shippensburg University, he gained valuable experience doing “a lot of the work nobody else wanted to do.”
After receiving a Master of Urban and Regional Planning degree from the University of Illinois, he worked for 12 years in the Department of Environmental Resources’ policy and legislation offices and then was appointed executive director of the state Senate’s Environmental Resources and Energy Committee in 1989, on the Republican side, where he developed an affinity for pursuing bipartisan environmental policy goals with officials from both parties.
Hess remembers his time working with state Senators fondly. “We had an amazing set of partnerships in the general assembly,” he said. “Everywhere you turn there was great environmental or energy conservation stuff going on.”
In 1995, Hess accepted a post as executive deputy secretary of Pennsylvania’s renamed DEP. Some of the accomplishments he’s most proud of there include literally flipping the switch on Pennsylvania’s first commercial wind farm, expediting the cleanup of brownfields, plots of land inundated with hazardous substances and set for reuse, and improving the state’s watershed quality. Befitting his reserved demeanor, Hess credits these successes to the “amazing team” he worked with, and the “common ground” the general assembly often found on issues of environmental policy.
Hess became DEP secretary, the agency’s highest post, in 2001. It was a year that would test him professionally beyond anything he could have ever imagined.
Managing Two Disasters
At 10:03 a.m. on on September 11, 2001, a plane hijacked by terrorists crash landed into an open field in Somerset County, Pennsylvania, later believed to be headed for Washington D.C., after a heroic revolt from its passengers and crew. The crash spewed jet fuel across the field, igniting the wreckage and the land.
Hess arrived at the crash site the following day and helped coordinate the cleanup of hazardous jet fuel by emergency response staff as they assessed and managed the portion of the wreckage near a reclaimed strip mine. The whole process, which took several days, he remembered, was “very emotional.”
“A lot of people could not stay there for an extended period of time, simply because of the nature of what happened — which was unbelievable,” Hess said. “One day coming back, somebody found a Bible and it was from one of the passengers with a note inside to their loved ones. And I mean, you know, just very emotional.” Hess paused, the corners of his mouth sliding into a small frown, and his voice reaching a new, lower register.
“There’s very little training you can give for instances like that,” he continued. “I’m just so very proud of the job DEP folks did.”
Less than a year later, on a warm summer’s evening in July, the very same county would play host to another emergency that gripped the globe.
On July 24, 2002, the group of nine miners at Quecreek became trapped underground, only a few miles from the 9/11 crash site, and it fell to Hess to help coordinate the response.
“We had a very active mine safety program for decades. And they trained a lot for situations like this. But situations like that usually don’t turn out successfully because it’s just the nature of mine actions,” Hess said.
The men needed to be saved three times. First, rescuers had to deliver a continuous supply of oxygen to keep the group from choking. Then, they needed to vacuum out the water threatening to drown the miners. Finally, if they survived those two steps, the men could be pulled out of the earth.
Using daily updates the mining crew had posted in the days preceding their entrapment, rescuers approximated the location underground where the men might have sought refuge from the rising water. With that location in hand, the rescue team turned to satellites to determine the corresponding position above ground where they should drill the six-inch wide hole so the men could breathe. All this happened in a matter of hours. “We had to hustle up and beat the rising water,” and the depleting oxygen concentration in the hole, said then-Gov. Schweiker, who served from October 2001 to January 2003.
Their calculations were so precise that after the rescue, Schweiker said a miner told officials that the drill they used for the air hole nearly knocked his helmet off.
“You got to give credit to David Hess for bringing to bear these experienced deep mine safety professionals that helped set the stage for a successful rescue of nine Pennsylvanians,” said Schweiker, now a senior advisor to a biomaterials company.
Hess, who described the whole rescue as a “team effort,” remembered the next stages of the rescue — draining the water and pulling the men out — as a feat of interagency and interstate cooperation. “We didn’t have drills big enough to drill the rescue shaft. We put out a call, got two rigs, no questions asked, from West Virginia,” he said. “We put out a call for big, huge probes to pump out water — they came from New Jersey, which closed down part of the turnpike. State police escorted them all the way over. It was just an amazing sight.”
Four days after they were trapped, all nine men were pulled out, one by one, in a 22-inch wide cage through a 24-inch hole in the earth.
A Vital Blog
Today, Hess fears the common ground he relied on throughout his career to make progress on environmental issues has all but receded from view. When he surveys Pennsylvania’s contemporary political landscape, Hess is discouraged by the polarization and deference to industry he says have consumed much of Pennsylvania’s legislative assembly.
“Everybody works within the context of the politics they’re given,” Hess said, acknowledging that the political climate changes from generation to generation. Still, he feels today’s political atmosphere stymies progress, particularly as it relates to oil and gas activities.
“People just do not respect the fact that other people may have, in fact, legitimate concerns about what’s going on,” he said.
Hess was referring to a statement state Sen. Gene Yaw, a Republican who serves as the chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and represents Bradford, Lycoming, Sullivan, Tioga and Union counties, released this April, dismissing a bill that would have required oil and gas infrastructure to be sited 2,500 to 5,000 feet from homes, hospitals and schools.
Yaw called the proposed bill “horrible legislation,” and argued that it would amount to banning fracking in the state. “It is often said that we cannot legislate against stupidity,” Yaw said. “That is true but we can stop stupid legislation from becoming law. Should House Bill 170 or any similar legislation pass the House of Representatives, it will not be considered in the Senate.”
Yaw’s use of the word “stupid” and refusal to even entertain the notion that another lawmaker may have a legitimate reason for increasing the setback distance for oil and gas wells (in 2020, a grand jury investigation recommended increasing setbacks to 2,500 to 5,000 feet, up from 200 to 500) alarmed and frustrated Hess.
“In my day, even if you disagreed with someone, you would never call a colleague’s proposal stupid, particularly on environmental issues,” he said.
Yaw’s office did not respond to a request for comment.
When it comes to improving environmental policy, today’s assembly “is not fertile ground to get stuff done,” Hess said. “Though, of course, we have to keep trying.”
Hess said it was difficult, just as his tenure was ending at DEP, to regulate fracking for plentiful natural gas in the vast Marcellus Shale. He likened the challenge to "'building an airplane while it was flying.' “That’s just how fast the industry came in and started drilling.”
He started his blog in 2008, and today, he said, he uses it to bring attention to the machinations of the oil and gas industry.
Since retiring, Hess spends almost no time in the field. Instead, he takes a seat at his desk in his home office in Harrisburg most days to work on PA Environmental Digest. “I’ve always had an interest in sharing information,” Hess said.
He’ll spend hours pouring over proposed legislation and agency meeting minutes, and fielding reports from fellow citizens. “My wife thinks I’m crazy for putting this much into it,” he said, with a smile.
Hess’ coverage of the industry has resonated with Pennsylvanians (he said his blog received about 153,000 visitors last month) and become an invaluable resource to state lawmakers and activists, too. A few even believe PA Environmental Digest will be his legacy in the state.
“I read him every day to know what’s happening in Pennsylvania,” said state Sen, Katie Muth, a Democrat. Muth has introduced legislation that would tighten regulations on oil and gas activity in the state and says she relies on Hess’ work to better understand how the industry operates. “Without him, there’d be no public awareness on the poisoning of Pennsylvanians,” she said.
Pennsylvania is the nation’s second largest natural gas producing state, behind only Texas, and like Texas, the state is facing significant problems disposing of billions of gallons of “produced water” that is mixed with sand and proprietary extraction fluids and blasted miles beneath to extract gas from tiny pores in the shale. The brackish wastewater, which comes up with the gas and is five or more times saltier than seawater, is laced not only with the toxic drilling chemicals but natural substances from deep underground — benzene, arsenic and radium 226 and 228, both radioactive isotopes, among others.
“I rely on the blog and several of our partners do as well,” said Gillian Graber, founder and director of Protect PT, an environmental group that raises awareness about fracking in Pennsylania’s western communities. “If it’s on the blog, I can trust it,” she said.
“He’s done such a huge service,” said Karen Feridun, co-founder of the environmental organization Better Path Coalition. Given her position as an activist and Hess’ history as an environmental regulator, Feridun suspects that she and he do not see eye-to-eye on every environmental issue. Still, she called his blog “hugely influential” and added “that’ll probably end up being his legacy.”
“If we had a regulator like him at the DEP today, we would be in much better shape,” Feridun said. “Not only is he knowledgeable, but he seems to understand the human side in a way that the regulators really don’t.”
Hess’ affinity for finding human angles into environmental stories was on display at the DEP, too. “When it came to community engagement, his open-mindedness and flexibility and capacity for finding consensus was outstanding,” Schweiker said. “He cares about the Pennsylvania citizen.”
And, occasionally, he’s turned the pages of his blog over to them.
In 2018, Siri Lawson, who follows Hess’ blog closely, contacted him to share her experience living next to oil and gas infrastructure for 40 years. Lawson sees several doctors to treat her sinuses and lungs, which she says have been damaged by decades of exposure to volatile organic compounds from oil and gas waste products near where she has lived in Pennsylvania and New York.
Lawson told Hess that, despite a moratorium on the practice, oil and gas companies in Pennsylvania were spreading toxic produced water on roadways as a form of waste management, including on roads near where she and her husband live in Warren County.
“He listened,” Lawson said of her conversation with Hess, a simple step that was rare, in her experience, for someone steeped in environmental politics to take. When Hess agreed to publish Lawson’s guest essay on road spreading, she remembered thinking, “Finally, we’re going to get a voice.”
The Elephant in the Forest
Hess’ blog is centered on Pennsylvania, but he pays attention to the wider fight against climate change, too — always with an eye for how global developments might play out at home. He was interested to see language calling for a transition away from fossil fuels included in the final text at COP28 in Dubai, calling such commitments “important.”
But in the absence of a concrete timeline and plan for transitioning away from fossil fuels, the world’s energy systems will still involve the oil and gas industry. And as long as that is the case in Pennsylvania, he said, “I want to make sure they treat everyone fairly and do things right—right by people and right by the environment. But so far they haven’t.”
“If you read the weekly oil and gas inspection reports that the DEP posts, like I do,” Hess said, “you get a real picture of what’s going on out there, from spills of 22,000 gallons of production wastewater with fracking chemicals in it, to explosions, fires, erosion, truck accidents and rollovers.” Almost a year ago, a natural gas gathering pipeline in Allegheny crashed through a family’s concrete basement wall while they were away from home. Due to various regulatory loopholes and gaps in fracking legislation, “no agency did a thing about it,” Hess said.
By now, Hess said, he is exasperated. Hearing these stories “really affects me,” he said. “These things need to be openly discussed so we can do something about it. Not just ignore it.”
And Hess feels the industry has done a good job remaining ignored. “If you look at the scale of what’s happening — from huge well pads to pipeline right of way spider-webbing out all over the landscape, compressor stations, natural gas processing facilities — you look at all that infrastructure that’s being built out there and many times it seems invisible to people because they only see a tiny piece of it,” he said.
In fact, all of these apparently separate pieces of infrastructure are part of the same industry, “this huge elephant roaming around Pennsylvania’s landscaping, taking out forests, having real impacts on habitats and creating forest fragmentation,” Hess said.
This infrastructure “needs to be much further away from people’s houses, schools and other institutions,” he added. “Having an industrial facility within 500 feet of your house defies common sense,” he said. “I’d be willing to bet there’s not one industry executive that lives within 500 feet of their drill rigs.”
For Hess, it is not enough to wait for a global commitment to phasing out fossil fuels to come to fruition. He said initiatives like the newly announced partnership between Gov. Josh Shprio’s administration, the DEP and CNX, a large fracking company with several wells in the state, could be a positive step towards better regulating the industry.
But he cautioned that “there’s a danger in saying that it’s historic and that it is something that’s going to change the direction of what’s going on. I think it’s a very limited program to monitor, in a very limited way, a very limited set of drill sites for only certain kinds of parameters,” he said, adding that “there’s a danger that it was oversold when it was announced.”
No matter the outcome of Shapiro’s partnership with CNX or the status of the global commitment to transitioning away from fossil fuels, as long as the elephant remains in the forest wreaking havoc Hess said he sees a need for action.
Pennsylvania’s environmental regulators, he said, should be learning from the litany of mistakes and disasters to strengthen the regulations around the industry. “Our laws and regulations are so weak,” he said. “We can’t just wait for renewable energy in the long term to come down the road. If we do, people are going to get hurt — people are getting hurt right now.”