Water quality issues seep into hard-fought Pa. Senate race

By Tiffany Stecker | 03/08/2016 07:20 AM EST

HERSHEY, Pa. — Political strategist James Carville’s 1986 maxim on Pennsylvania — that it’s Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between — is an oft-repeated description of the Keystone State’s politics.

But at a state Democratic committee meeting Saturday, Senate candidates sought to place another location in the middle of the state — and the political debate: Flint, Mich.

"Braddock is Flint, Michigan; it’s just a little bit smaller," said Braddock Mayor John Fetterman, one of three Democrats at the meeting vying to defeat incumbent Sen. Pat Toomey (R) this fall.

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Fetterman, a towering, tattooed figure with a shaved head and long goatee, spoke in a booming voice to nearly 400 Democrats in the Hershey Lodge ballroom, while delegates collected endorsement votes for the candidates.

The struggling Michigan city, where cost-cutting measures and regulatory shortcuts caused the widespread lead contamination of the city’s drinking water, made its way into all three of the candidates’ speeches in their appeal for support. By the end, none of the three candidates — Fetterman, former Rep. Joe Sestak and former White House Council on Environmental Quality chief Katie McGinty — received enough votes to earn an endorsement from the Pennsylvania Democratic Party.

Water quality is playing a role in this cycle’s Democratic race, particularly around the wastewater from hydraulic fracturing. But it’s not the only water pollution issue in the commonwealth. The state is far behind in its goals to clean up the Chesapeake Bay under a 2010 legal settlement between U.S. EPA and six Mid-Atlantic states, plus the District of Columbia.

It’s also plaguing urban communities. Philadelphia’s water utility was accused earlier this year of using lead-testing protocols incorrectly in a way that could hide high levels of lead in the water.

"What you are seeing is much more of a concern about water as a whole," said Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. "The tragedy in Flint has made that more of a top issue."

Like Flint, Fetterman’s city, just east of Pittsburgh, was once an industrial boomtown that rusted away in the second half of the 20th century. Like Flint, the population has dwindled to one-tenth of its apex in the 1950s.

"I am running to be a champion for all of Pennsylvania’s forgotten cities," Fetterman said.

McGinty, who left her post as Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf’s (D) chief of staff to run for Senate, also made the embattled Michigan city her own, framing the situation that exposed about 9,000 children to the powerful neurotoxin as an opportunity for economic growth.

"Not another single Flint, Michigan," she said. "Let’s put people to work ripping out the old lead pipes; let’s put people to work building world-class infrastructure."

Sestak, a retired Navy admiral who served two terms in the House before narrowly losing to Toomey in the 2010 Senate race, used Flint as a cautionary tale for loosely regulated oil and gas operations, calling on the state Department of Environmental Protection to "make sure our water isn’t like Flint."

Sestak has called for greater scrutiny at the state and federal level of chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing, referring to Flint as the canary in the coal mine for poor oversight.

A protege of former Vice President Al Gore who rose through the ranks in President Clinton’s White House and Democratic Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell’s Department of Environmental Protection, McGinty has the chops to be the greens’ favorite. She’s been backed by the national League of Conservation Voters and some LCV allies in the Senate.

"She’s been one of our true champions," said Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), one of the Senate’s most active members on water issues. "I know her well; I know her record."

Dressed in a tailored red skirt suit and pearls at the state committee meeting, McGinty has positioned herself as the serious policy wonk — the candidate who would balance job growth and the environment.

"I think they’re economic opportunities in disguise," McGinty said in an interview with E&E Daily. As senator, she said, she would launch a "Get the Lead Out" campaign to hire and train workers to remove lead pipes and strip lead paint out of homes.

Fracking more pivotal to voters

But despite Flint, water won’t be as important an issue for voters as fracking, said Terry Madonna, director of the Center for Politics and Public Affairs at Franklin & Marshall College in Lancaster, Pa.

"It’s hard to get into what that means," said Madonna, of the term "water." Unlike fracking, Flint’s connection to Pennsylvania is tenuous.

The latest Franklin & Marshall Poll of nearly 500 registered Democrats, taken in mid-February, had Sestak in the lead with 21 percent of the vote, McGinty with 12 percent of the vote and Fetterman with 8 percent, with 56 percent undecided. However, McGinty won the majority of state Democratic convention votes Saturday, with 173 votes to Sestak’s 149 in a second, runoff round. But it was short of the two-thirds she needed to win the official party endorsement.

McGinty’s opponents, including Toomey, have spotlighted her ties with the oil and gas industry. They’ve focused on her work on the board of NRG Energy Inc., which holds a portfolio of natural gas, coal and wind projects. McGinty did not lobby while on the board, but her ties to influencers have percolated during the campaign. A Washington Free Beacon story last week highlighted a fundraiser for McGinty hosted by Holly Kinser, a Pennsylvania lobbyist whose clients include Patriot Coal Corp.

"We don’t take fracking and lobbying money like one of my candidates does," said Fetterman, who has positioned himself as the unconventional candidate, both in politics and in physical appearance. He and Sestak have advocated for a moratorium on fracking in the state until the impacts of fracking are better understood. As mayor, he partnered with the Environmental Defense Fund to promote cap and trade as a boon for the workforce, an initiative called "Carbon Caps Equal Hard Hats."

Sestak has also rejected an image of being too friendly with industry.

"When I left Congress, I turned down those lobbyist jobs," he said.

But in the April 26 primary election, environmentally minded voters will likely have a hard time differentiating among the three, said Madonna.

"You still get the sense that they’re not completely on different pages," he said.

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