Wolf On New Attorney General, The Opioid Epidemic & Beaver Co. Ethane Cracker
Key changes are being made among the top staff of the state attorney general’s office. New Attorney General Bruce Beemer announced Robert Mulle is taking over as First Deputy Attorney General and James Donahue III will be Acting Chief of Staff.
Beemer recently took over after being appointed interim attorney general by Governor Tom Wolf following the tumultuous tenure of Kathleen Kane.
In the first of our series of monthly interviews with Wolf, he told 90.5 WESA's Paul Guggenheimer why he chose Beemer for the job. The governor also discussed the opioid abuse epidemic and the ethane cracker to be built in Beaver County.
Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
PAUL GUGGENHEIMER: Gov. Wolf, the state has its third attorney general in less than three weeks after the senate confirmed former state Inspector General Bruce Beemer’s nomination. What has convinced you that Mr. Beemer is the right man for the job? And I’m curious what the conversation is like. Take us into the conversation with someone who you are now entrusting to clean up a very big mess.
GOV. WOLF: Well, let me tell you the conversation exactly. First of all, I don’t know this for a fact but I’ve got to believe that the travails of former Attorney General Kane had to have had an impact on the morale of the Attorney General’s office. And so I’m sure that one of the things that employees in that office were looking for was some sense of stability and calm. I think they were also looking for someone they knew. And someone who had built a reputation as a good leader and I think he did all those things. There were a lot of people who thought very highly of Bruce. And again the Republicans and Democrats in the senate agreed with that. Now, let me just say one thing that I did talk about in our internal conversations. In addition to reinvigorating the attorney general’s office and raising morale, was that whoever wins the attorney general’s race in November is inaugurated in January. At that point, I am going to be getting him to come back as inspector general. So, as far as I’m concerned, this is a four month leave of absence and I want him back. So, I think very highly of him. I think the employees who now work for him in the attorney general’s office feel the same way. They’re happy to have somebody bring closure to the long process that they’ve gone through.
GUGGENHEIMER: Last week, you announced 25 additional Centers of Excellence to combat the opioid abuse epidemic will open by Jan. 1. How bad has this problem gotten?
WOLF: Well, it’s bad. Just the dry statistics, 2,500 people died in 2014 from drug overdoses that we know of. I think that number was 3,500 last year, it was up a thousand. And it looks so far this year, this is the early part of September, the numbers look like they’re going to be even higher in 2016. But that’s not all. The human cost, there’s probably not an individual in Pennsylvania who doesn’t have a family member or neighbor or friends or isn’t personally affected by the heroin crisis. This is an epidemic, some people call it a plague, and we’ve really got to do something about it. It’s affecting all parts of Pennsylvania which is why Republicans and Democrats alike in Harrisburg really are insistent on doing something about it. So, we’ve been working, I’ve been working, the legislature has been working on a number of different fronts. You mentioned the Centers of Excellence, that was one thing. I got $15 million in the state budget that leveraged another $5.4 million from the federal government which allowed us to open 20 Centers of Excellence, which basically are outpatient treatment centers but also exist and were created to help patients navigate through the healthcare system to get the treatment they need for their specific problem. But we’ve done some work and just a couple of days ago I announced that we’re going to be able to open another 25 Centers of Excellence which will bring us to 45 throughout the Commonwealth to help sufferers and families deal with this affliction.
GUGGENHEIMER: One of the bigger economic developments impacting western Pennsylvania happened earlier this summer when Shell announced its plans to build a massive multi-billion dollar ethane cracker in Potter Township, Beaver County, about 30 miles northwest of Pittsburgh. A cracker is a plant that takes oil and gas and breaks it into smaller molecules, to create ethylene, which is used in plastics manufacturing. The location was chosen because of its proximity to gas supplies. What are your thoughts about the economic impact this will have?
WOLF: Well, I know the term "game changer" has been used a lot and I hate to pile on, but it is a game changer. The west has been suffering from the decline of the steel industry for many decades. This is something that is as big as the steel industry once was for western Pennsylvania, actually for Pennsylvania as a whole. Here’s why I say that; my old business I sold in June, one of our products was made from material that’s coming out of the cracker plant. We’d have to transport our stuff from where the gas was and where the cracker plant was in Texas all the way across the country to get to this market from Maine to Florida. This cracker plant is the only cracker plant that will be right in the middle or it’ll be closest to this big market, the richest market in the world. It’s where the natural resource is, it’s where a great labor pool is. It’s where a great tradition of manufacturing is and it’s where the market is. So, this is going to spawn, I think, a lot of manufacturing facilities and it’s going to lead to all kinds of economic growth and new jobs.
GUGGENHEIMER: The ethane cracker plant promises new jobs but many are worried that it’s a large new source of pollution in a region that has seen slow but steady improvement in its air quality over the years. What do you say to environmental critics of the plant or people worried that this could set Pittsburgh’s air quality back?
WOLF: Yeah, I think that we have to be vigilant and make sure it doesn’t. Shell is a responsible citizen. Shell understands, and I have talked to their senior executives, and they understand that Pennsylvanians really are serious about maintaining the excellence of our environment and making sure that our air and water remains clean and gets even better. So, this particular cracker plant is going to be regulated by, I think, the strictest methane requirements in the country, the Department of Environmental Protection has developed. And we’re going to make sure that Shell continues to do what they have done already and that is adhere to these high standards and make sure that they affirm every day their commitment to a clean environment.