It’s our 200th podcast episode! We celebrate by recognizing another big milestone: issue #1000 of the PA Environment Digest published by former PA Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Hess. Dave explains how the Digest grew from an internal newsletter during his days as a legislative staffer into one of the Commonwealth’s longest-running and widest-reaching citizen journalism initiatives.
We are celebrating our 200th episode of Pennsylvania Legacies this week by speaking with someone who has been supporting us since the beginning of the podcast.
David Hess is the editor of the PA Environment Digest and a veteran of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which he led as secretary from 2001 to 2003.
What began as an internal source of information for his colleagues has since grown to one of the Commonwealth’s longest-running and widest-reaching citizen journalism initiatives. This month, the Digest published its one-thousandth issue.
During the administrations of governors Tom Ridge and, later, Mark Schweiker, the Digest was a tool for DEP to share information on what state agencies as well as outside groups were doing to protect and enhance the environment.
“That became one of the primary missions of the newsletter: to share that kind of information, to give people examples that they can look to,” Hess said.
It soon became an important public information tool that kept people informed of and engaged in issues — so much so it earned DEP national and international recognition.
After his term as secretary, Hess went on to become a lobbyist for environmental and other groups. He maintained the newsletter as a way of continuing to share news and educate the general public.
“I just have this fundamental belief that the power to share information about what’s going on is something very positive,” Hess said.
He’s since retired but continues to keep up the newsletter all on his own, spending hours each day researching and writing.
“I don’t have anybody paying me to do this. I’m just doing it for fun,” he said.
Hess says he gets up early to scan for stories and write them up. People also send him content from various outlets to publish. Next, he checks in on the General Assembly and covers any pertinent meetings. He also combs through DEP oil and gas inspection reports, which are posted routinely by the agency on its website.
“I try to look for circumstances where there is a gap in other coverage that, frankly, I hope spurs other people to cover some of those same issues,” Hess said.
To compile the newsletter, he gathers all of the clips for a given week and arranges them by topic. Routinely, these span anywhere from 150 to 200 articles. It’s a lot of work, but after 50 years of being involved in environmental and energy issues, it’s become second nature.
Every month, Environment Digest receives anywhere from 50,000 to 60,000 visits. The newsletter goes out to members of the Pennsylvania House and Senate, as well as news organizations across the Commonwealth.
Asked what the 1,000-episode milestone means to him, Hess said it’s a gratifying achievement, but what impresses him more is the work of others.
“It’s just amazing to me how much good stuff is going on out there to protect and enhance Pennsylvania’s environment. And that part of it overwhelms, I think, the negative stuff that’s happening,” he said.
He makes a point to promote those positive stories to remind his audience that news about the environment isn’t all doom-and-gloom.
“There are thousands of people in Pennsylvania doing terrific things to help the environment,” he said. “I hope, in a small way, I have the opportunity to show people that point.”
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Josh Raulerson (00:02)
It is Friday, September 15th, 2023. I’m Josh Raulerson. This is Pennsylvania Legacies, the podcast from the Pennsylvania Environmental Council. And this is our 200th episode of the podcast! Pennsylvania Legacies launched in 2016, and since then, we’ve published more than 85 hours of news and interviews with leaders, innovators, experts, artists, and ordinary Pennsylvanians about the topics near and dear to our heart, the topics at the core of our mission as an environmental organization. To date, these conversations have been downloaded or streamed more than 63,000 times. That’s not bad, but we’re just getting started. Much more notable is the longevity and reach of the Pennsylvania Environment Digest, edited by former Department of Environmental Protection Secretary David Hess. As it happens, the Digest is also approaching a big milestone this month — 1000 issues published. Now, if you’re involved with any kind of environmental work in Pennsylvania, especially as it relates to state government, there’s a good chance you’re already among the more than 7,000 subscribers to Dave’s email lists, or maybe one of the 60,000, give or take, who visit his website each month.
If you’re not, you should be. Every day, including weekends, subscribers get an exhaustive list of links to news articles published that same day on environmental topics specific to Pennsylvania. The stories are drawn from dozens of outlets all over the state — everything from small town, local papers to statewide and national news media, and nothing falls through the cracks. Those news clips are supplemented with blog posts and longer form articles written by Mr. Hess, who explains the daily sausage-making in Harrisburg and unpacks the minutiae of DEP documents and proceedings as only a former secretary can. It’s all collected once a week in the Environment Digest, which as of September 18th, numbers 1000 issues. That’s four digits going back to the 1990s when Dave was the staffer in the state senate. David Hass has been a friend of PEC for years and has been a guest on this podcast many times. He returns now to celebrate with us the 1000th issue of the PA Environment Digest. Dave, with apologies for that very long-winded introduction. Welcome back to Pennsylvania Legacies. Great to have you here as always.
David Hess: (02:25)
Glad to be here. I just want to say first you guys do great work on these podcasts, so keep it up.
Josh Raulerson (02:31)
Thank you so much. It means a lot coming from you. Why don’t we start with some backstory on your professional biography, how you kind of got into this project. I understood it was sort of an outgrowth of work you were doing at DEP years and years ago.
David Hess: (02:46)
Well, I had my, just briefly, my resume. I had two tours of duty with DEP. One tour of duty when it was DER, Department of Environmental Resources. Then I went over to the state Senate to be executive director of the Senate Environmental Resources Energy Committee with Senator Fisher and with Senator Brightbill. And then it came back to the department during the Ridge and Schweiker administrations, first as number two executive deputy for the first six years and then as secretary of the last two years. This really got started as an outgrowth of what I was doing when I was executive director of the Senate Environmental Resources Committee, because a lot of people would ask me about what’s happening at, of course, then DER what, you know, what does this legislation mean, you know, what, what the advisory committees are, are up to, and that sort of thing.
So as a way of sharing that information around the Senate and also outside of the Senate, I started a weekly newsletter. So that effectively since somewhere in 1987 or so, every week since then, with the exception of one year, I have basically a weekly record of what has happened on environmental issues and legislation and that sort of thing in Pennsylvania. And the one interesting thing is I’ve been talking to the State archives folks, and they want to get a hold of those records because they think that’s a good resource later for research purposes. All they have to do is figure out how they want to preserve it and then make it available. So I’m in discussions with them on that.
Josh Raulerson: (04:48)
So it began kind of in some ways as an internal source of information and then, and something that others outside of your immediate, you know, professional world could pick up on if, you know, if they had an interest. How did that evolve over the years? Is that still more or less the model you’re working from, or do you speak to a, a broader audience?
David Hess: (05:06)
Well, when I was with the committee over in the Senate, it became a way of just sharing basic information, a lot of it internally, and then it slowly migrated outside. When I came over with Governor Ridge and then later Governor Schweiker, it became a real tool for the agency to share information, not only open up the information available in the department, but to also share information about what other people are doing outside the department, watershed groups, farmers businesses, what they’re doing to protect and enhance the environment. And that became one of the primary missions of the newsletter to share that kind of information, to give people examples that they can look to, to say, you know, well, if those guys are doing that, there’s no reason why I can’t do it, you know, whether I’m a farmer or a business watershed group or, or what have you.
And that became a real powerful tool, but it also became a real powerful tool to open up the agency to share what was happening at advisory committees to get public input into what the agency was doing. And the department actually won awards from a number of different national and international groups for the newsletter and those kinds of initiatives during the Ridge Schweiker years. So I’m very proud of that. After I left the Department, then in 2003, it really, again, became a passion of mine personally, because again, I believe very strongly in sharing information, providing those examples, letting people know what was happening. And I, after my term as secretary, I became a lobbyist for environmental and other groups, and it became a, a way of, again, sharing that information. Well, I worked with a friend of mine, Tony Crisci, at a lobbying firm, and just became, again, a very good tool, but then evolved, I think, into a life of its own, particularly the last 10 years as I’ve phased out of working and went into retirement. So it’s become, I think, a little bit more complete tool right now. Yeah.
Josh Raulerson: (07:42)
You’re basically a fully independent actor at this point.
David Hess: (07:46)
Absolutely. I don’t have any clients. I don’t have anybody paying me to do this. I’m just doing it for fun. My wife who has her own catering business, you know, thinks I’m crazy for doing this because I put so much time and effort into it. But I just have this fundamental belief that the power to share information about what’s going on is something very positive. And let people make up their own mind about where they want to stand in legislation, what they want to do for the environment, what’s happening out there. Does it make sense or doesn’t it make sense? But at least the information is out there.
Josh Raulerson: (08:26)
So, okay, you mentioned the amount of time and effort that goes into this. I’m curious about your process, the system, the setup that you have. You’re only one person and you’re a human being. I assume there is some software assistance at some level, so I, if you’re willing to divulge your secrets, I would love to know just how you are able to amass this amount of information daily for this long. How much of this is sort of automated? How much of it is hand-curated, and has that setup changed over time?
David Hess: (08:53)
Well, there’s no artificial intelligence driving what I do. It’s, it’s sort of what you see is what you get. But I think number one, I rely on the kindness of strangers to send me things to publish. And you’ll notice that a lot of what’s in the newsletter is information that other people have sent me. And that’s just amazing and great because it’s those kinds of positive examples that I like to get out there. If, if I was only writing about what was happening in the House and the Senate in Harrisburg, some days it would be a pretty depressing story. But the thing that saves me is the fact that I have a lot of people sending me things about the great work that they’re doing out there. And if I can provide them with some small measure of recognition through that, it’s, you know, I’ve had a good day of doing this.
I mean, my effort here, I mean, just a one person effort. I start with news clips in the morning, get up early, do my news clips, share those, and then see what has come in over the transom from people on the outside, you know, post those articles, see what’s going on with the General Assembly cover meetings as best I can and have time. It is a lot of work, but I’ve been doing this sort of thing for over 50 years now, involved in environmental and energy issues. It’s sort of what I do.
Josh Raulerson: (10:38)
I just envision you there at, you know, at 5:00 a.m. with a cup of coffee or something and like a hundred tabs open on your browser. Are you like manually going to each of the however many local news websites that are out there? Or do you, you just kind of know which stories are active on a given day and what you should be keeping tabs on? Do you visit every website every day? Is that how you work?
David Hess: (11:00)
Well, I mean, to put the news clips together, I do two things. One, I actually use Google alerts for certain keywords that, you know, automatically calls some articles for me. But there are 20, 25 newspapers and media outlets that I look at every morning just, just to go through to see what’s going on. But again, I mean, it doesn’t take all of that long to do that sort of thing because I’m looking for specific things. But I’m still amazed, I’m still amazed at how much environmental and energy and, and outdoors and hunting and fishing articles there are in Pennsylvania. I mean, one of the things I do is gather all the clips for a given week, put them, put them, arrange them by order of topic, say from air quality to wildlife. And, you know, routinely there are 150 or 200 articles every single week from, not me, but other media outlets. And that can be newspapers, TV, radio, online stuff, uh, on these environmental, wildlife, outdoors energy topics in Pennsylvania. And that’s a lot. And, you know, I’m very grateful for that coverage because it fills in a lot of gaps, not only geographically, but also in terms of issues and problems and also positive examples of what’s happening out there. To me, it’s, that’s pretty amazing what media is still doing these days.
Josh Raulerson: (12:47)
Yeah. You hear about the shrinking newsroom and you hear about the smaller budgets and local news kind of disappearing and like that, that’s definitely true in a lot of ways, but it’s all the more surprising then to see, as you say, how much is actually getting covered day in, day out, what it means to the communities where people are reading those stories and consuming that, you know, that content. What you’re doing predates what people were calling blogging, I think, 20, 25 years ago. But even at that point, like a big part of what you were doing if you were a blogger, the value you deliver to your audience was, Hey, there’s all this content. You might not know where to begin. I am, you know, a knowledgeable person. I’m going to aggregate and sort of curate and serve it up for you. And so that’s something, you know, used to see a lot more of that.
And now, sort of ironically, perhaps insofar as there’s even more content out there to be on top of, I guess that’s a service that’s kind of disappeared in a lot of ways. I suppose social media has maybe taken up some of it, but you’re keeping that alive. But not only that, you’re also doing some kind of, enterprise reporting. You write up longer posts that are essentially news articles. So you’re, I, I know you’re doing some form of reporting. I’m curious, like how do you decide what to cover, you know, how much conventional reporting work goes into that and making calls, getting quotes, verifying information. How do you go about that piece of it? Because that’s a little bit more involved than just copy pasting, you know, links. How do you, how do you think about the, the stories you write?
David Hess: (14:15)
Well, I guess I look for gaps. There’s a lot of good coverage going on out there, but there are also gaps, particularly on issues that point to policy issues that should be highlighted. You know, for example, you know, just two examples. One is I go through the DEP oil and gas inspection reports every week that are posted routinely by the agency on their website. And yeah, that sounds pretty darn boring, but I tell you, it gives you a good feel for the kind of situations that the department is running into on a week to week to week basis. I mean, just last week you had instances where there was an uncontrolled release of natural gas from a shale gas, well, that wasn’t reported anywhere, and it kept going for nine and a half hours. And DEP treated it as an emergency.
They were notified by the company they responded to, to what was going on. In another instance, they, they, a company, a company reported the rollover of a truck carrying 4,600 gallons of drilling wastewater that spilled all over the place. And that was not reported anywhere.
You had other instances in the last six weeks where a, a small village in Venango County, Reno had their water supply contaminated by the release of wastewater from conventional oil and gas wells. And those people were without water for six weeks. They just got their water supply restored through a combination of local efforts, volunteers, donations, the PUC, DEP, and also Aqua Pennsylvania, who took over temporary operation of, of that water supply. It was really a great story of people pulling together, the local newspaper covered very well, The Derrick, but these often are gaps in coverage that point to policy issues that should be addressed.
You know, the fact that every week DEP is running into more and more abandoned conventional oil and gas wells, that should feed a discussion on the state level of how we prevent these things. These are still happening out there. Meantime, DEP’s getting a lot of federal money to plug these wells. Well, if you don’t prevent new abandoned wells, sort of, what’s the use? Because you’re never going to catch up, you’re on a treadmill. So I try to look for circumstances where there is a gap in other coverage that frankly, I hope spurs other people to cover some of those same issues.
Josh Raulerson: (17:35)
Well, it’s a, it’s a coverage gap, and it’s also, I think on some level, an analysis gap. You’re looking at information that is publicly available, right? In theory, anybody with an internet connection has access to the same DEP documents that you’re gleaning all this information from. But not everybody is able to read that document and kind of understand it. And certainly not everybody can put it in the, the policy context that you mentioned.
David Hess: (17:56)
Well, I’ve heard it, heard it said a retired guy with a lot of time on it, on his or her hands is somebody who’s very dangerous. But, I think it’s something anyone can really do. I mean, anyone could sit down in the morning, go through, you know, the news media outlets that are there looking for environmental stories and share those stories. You know, I think it, it does take more of a journalist to dig into some of these issues, particularly the more personal stories. You know, I’ve interviewed a husband and wife, couple navy veterans from Indiana County who were really impacted by the construction of the Mariner East Pipeline, and they have not still had their problems rectified by the department, Sunoco, the company who built the line, or any anyone else. And, you know, again, it, there’s a, a gap in, in coverage there. It doesn’t seem like a lot of people are bringing those kinds of stories out into the forefront. But it also highlights a real policy issue of how we regulate pipelines and do we have enough resources to regulate those pipelines when you have tens of thousands of miles of those natural gas and hazardous liquid pipelines all across Pennsylvania.
Josh Raulerson: (19:27)
Let’s talk about the audience for Environment Digest. Do you have a sense of, you know, how many people are following your work? How many subscribers do you have, and what kind of interactions do you have with your audience? What feedback do you get?
David Hess: (19:39)
Well, between my weekly newsletter and my daily emails, I have just about 7,000 folks that subscribe to my information. And I do send the weekly email to House and Senate members. I send it to media across the state — print, radio, TV — so it gets out to reporters in that way. So I have a rather broad audience in addition to citizen groups and local officials. I mean, you name it, you know, all sorts of people are on my email list and, you know, it’s certainly not in the neighborhood of the Kardashians or anything, but, you know, I get 50 or 60,000 visits to my blog every month. I mean, it’s just very gratifying. The comments I do get from people who say the information they see on there is very useful, and, and frequently they don’t get to see that kind of information, whether it’s on a particular bill that’s moving or a grant program that just opened up or whatever the issue might be. And I’m just very gratified that I get those kinds of comments.
Josh Raulerson: (20:56)
So clearly there is an audience here, and it’s the sort of audience that is maybe not as casual as, as you might find in other context, you know, people are engaged, they’re talking back and they’re pitching stories to you and sharing tips with you. All of that, to me, points to, I don’t know, it seems like it should be an opportunity for someone other than a retired guy with a lot of time. Why, why isn’t the news industry, you know, meeting this need?
David Hess: (21:19)
Well, I think each of us has a role. I think the, the more traditional media and the media that that is out there has a, has a certain model, and I try to capture that information as, as I mentioned, by doing news clips in the morning so that that part of it is not missed because there’s a lot of good reporting going on by different kinds of media all across the state. You know, the kind of thing that I do is, you know, take a hard look at legislation that’s moving. I take a hard look at regulations, try again to identify those policy issues that people may be missing. Sometimes I’m annoying because I keep bringing those issues up to different policy makers. But I also do, you know, make an effort to have both sides of those issues. When there are op-eds or guest essays around on one side of an issue, there are frequently some on the other side of the issue. So I, you know, post both of those where they’re available. So my goal is to share the information, let people make up their own mind. I do have a point of view, though. I very much want a strong Department of Environmental Protection. I want them to have the resources they need to do their job, because I think they provide a level playing field for everyone to compete. And the minute you don’t have a strong DEP, the minute you don’t have the resources you need to regulate these industries in, in a fair way and a in a competent way, more people get away with more stuff and, you know, nowhere is that more evident than the fact that every week, DEP’s oil and gas inspectors go out and find more abandoned oil and gas walls and try to get people to comply. You know, DEP provides a lot of, I think, not only regulatory fairness and a level playing field, but they’re very much needed to make sure not only people do the right thing, but everybody does the right thing and they’re all competing on that same plane. So if I have a bias; that’s a bias that I will gladly admit.
Josh Raulerson: (23:54)
So a thousand issues, that’s a big number. What does that number mean to you? What is this milestone for you? What do you think the impact, broadly speaking has has been of this project?
David Hess: (24:03)
Well, a thousand issues is a big number. I mean, that’s a thousand weekly issues of a lot of information. I’m approaching 60,000 stories at this point in those thousand issues, a lot of information shared. You know, the feedback I get is that it’s useful information and that’s very gratifying to me. But, you know, a thousand is, is just a number. It is certainly, to me, a major milestone. But I think every week when I sit back and I’m finished with the newsletter and I see the, you know, 45 or 50 different stories that I put together from folks who send stuff in, stuff that I write, whatever the, the source, you know, it’s just amazing to me how much good stuff is going on out there to protect and enhance Pennsylvania’s environment. And that part of it overwhelms, I think, the negative stuff that’s happening. And I make a point every week of identifying those good things that are happening, both in environmental protection, conservation, wildlife, because people need to see that it’s not all doom and gloom. That there are thousands of people in Pennsylvania doing terrific things to help the environment. I hope in a small way, I have the opportunity to show people that point.
Josh Raulerson: (25:40)
What do you see as the future of Environment Digest? Are you just going to keep doing this indefinitely? Do you have plans to wind it down or hand it off? What fills the void if Environment Digest goes away someday, hopefully in the far distant future?
David Hess: (25:53)
Well, I plan to continue this forever. (Laughs)
Josh Raulerson: (25:55)
David Hess: (25:56)
But no, I mean, seriously, everybody has, you know, runs out of road sooner or later, and I don’t know what’s going to happen to this. Again, it’s something others could pick up if they wanted to. If they see value in parts of what I do or the whole thing, that would be terrific. But, I have not seen what’s too far ahead of me right now. I’m worried about issue number 1001 at this point.
Josh Raulerson: (26:29)
All right, well, I’ll let you get back to putting that together. But congratulations on a thousand issues, and all the work you’ve done over the years, and all it has meant to people in this, in this Commonwealth. And additionally, I really appreciate all the support and encouragement you’ve given me with, with my little project too. Dave, thanks again for being on Pennsylvania Legacies. It’s great talking with you.
David Hess: (26:49)
Thanks for having me on.
Josh Raulerson: (26:55)
David Hess is editor of the PA Environment Digest and a veteran of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which he led as secretary from 2001 to 2003. If you’re not already subscribed to the Digest, you can find the signup link in the web post accompanying this episode on our website. It’s at PECPA.org. PECPA.org. We have our own mailing list for In Case You Missed It, our monthly recap newsletter going over news from PEC from the last month, as well as some of the content that you might’ve missed on our website or the PEC podcast. You can find all 200 episodes of the show on the aforementioned PECPA.org. If you go to the news section of the website, you’ll see our most recent episodes. And if you want to dive into the archive, go over to the resources tab and check the box for audio.
You’ll see all past episodes on the website. You’ll find more about PEC’s activities across the state and all of our program areas, including energy and climate, clean water, storm water management, and watershed restoration through reforestation and other approaches. We work on trail development and promote outdoor recreation as part of a broader emphasis on conservation focused economic development in Pennsylvania cities and towns. We’re on social media too. Facebook, of course, as well as the platform, formerly known as Twitter. Connect with us there and check back in, in a couple of weeks for the next installment of the Pennsylvania Legacies Podcast, 200 in the bag. We’ll keep putting them out. Until then, for the Pennsylvania Environmental Council, I’m Josh Raulerson, and thanks for listening.