In 2005, as the head of the state Department of Environmental Protection, Democratic gubernatorial candidate Katie McGinty fast-tracked a permit for a controversial waste coal power plant in Washington County. In recent months, McGinty has accepted $120,000 in campaign contributions from a coal executive behind the project.
The Beech Hollow power plant was ultimately never built.
But emails obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania show an effort by McGinty to expedite the plant’s permit and approve it just before more stringent federal air quality regulations were going to be implemented.
Ray Bologna Sr.’s family owns the site of a massive pile of waste coal in Robinson Township – said to be the largest east of the Mississippi. The plan was to use it as fuel for the power plant.
Over the years, the Bolognas have given generously to many political campaigns, including those of former governor Ed Rendell and Governor Corbett.
Bologna did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
“My phone is ringing off the hook”
“Guys, I want a quick update on all four priority projects we are trying so hard to move,” McGinty wrote to DEP staff in a January 2005 email, referring to the plant. “My phone is ringing off the hook with legislators who are concerned re the April 5th deadline.”
The emails show DEP staff were intent on approving the permit by April 4, 2005 – the day before tougher federal rules were to take effect. On April 5, the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated Washington County as a non-attainment area for soot. Local residents had raised concerns the plant could exacerbate existing air quality problems.
McGinty’s campaign manager, Mike Mikus, says she always sought to process permits quickly – whether they were denied or approved.
“It’s just fair to the applicant,” he says. “There’s no reason it should languish for years. At the time, she felt (the plant) would be able to comply with the EPA regulations.”
Earlier in January 2005, DEP’s Southwest Regional Director at the time, Kenneth Bowman, emailed McGinty to say he reached out to then-state Sen. Barry Stout, D-Bentleyville.
“I called Senator Stout at home, as you directed,” Bowman wrote to McGinty. “(He) was pleased with the Department’s efforts to move the permit review through so expeditiously. Stout asked to be informed immediately if there are any problems.”
Stout retired from the state Legislature in 2010. Campaign finance records show he was also the recipient of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions from the Bologna family over the years.
Stout says he wanted the Beech Hollow plant permit to be expedited because the pile of waste coal has been an environmental liability in his district for decades – it’s still there to this day.
He says the contributions didn’t influence his opinion of the project.
“I requested that the applications be moved forward, but not to bypass any guidelines,” he says. “I think the benefits from cleaning up the waste coal were significant.”
Federal agencies complained to the DEP that they were not being kept up to date on the Beech Hollow project. The EPA relayed its concerns in a March 2005 letter.
“We have been formally notified by representatives of the National Park Service … and the United State Department of Agriculture Forest Service … that they have not received adequate information nor timely notification of the proposed project.”
Last month, McGinty returned $20,000 in campaign contributions from another coal executive – Cliff Forrest. He recently bought Freedom Industries, the company at the center of West Virginia’s massive chemical spill.
“We were unaware he had any ownership in that,” Mikus told Capitolwire.
Another one of Ray Bologna Sr.’s companies was implicated – although he was never personally charged – in a 1979 toxic waste dumping case. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette described it as one of the largest midnight dumping schemes in Pennsylvania’s history.
Mikus says the campaign does not plan to return Bologna’s contributions.
“Obviously she’s troubled with anything like that occurring, but that was some time ago,” he says.
Last fall, the campaign also received $10,000 from Joseph Bologna. He’s listed as an executive at Bologna Coal Co.
McGinty is running on her environmental record and recently received a high-profile endorsement from former vice president Al Gore, whom she previously worked under.
Last month, she was asked specifically about the Bologna contributions at a WHYY forum for the Democratic gubernatorial candidates.
“How can you assure voters that special interests won’t get special treatment in a McGinty administration?” asked moderator Dave Davies.
“I’ve been on the hot seat for 25 years on tough environmental issues,” she replied. “Anyone who knows my track record knows there’s no special interest that tells Katie McGinty what to do.”
StateImpact Pennsylvania is a collaboration between public radio stations WITF in Harrisburg and WHYY in Philadelphia to report on the commonwealth’s energy economy. Visit stateimpact.npr.org.