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Bureaucrat Dismisses Public's Comments As 'Stupid'

Posted at 1:08 PM, Mar 11, 2014
and last updated 2015-09-07 14:44:36-04

By Ben Hall
Investigative Reporter

NASHVILLE, Tenn. - Public comments called "stupid" and dismissed as jokes.

That's what a NewsChannel 5 investigation found in emails from one state agency that's supposed to keep the public safe.

Those emails, from the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation, reveal a surprising attitude.

"I have to let people know I don't approve of this," said Laine Southerland, who opposes a controversial way to drill for natural gas called hydraulic fracturing or fracking.

Fracking involves shooting water and chemicals into the ground to break up shale and release the gas.

So when the state Department of Environment and Conservation invited public comments on the issue, she voiced her opposition in an e-mail.

"I wrote, 'I vehemently oppose fracking to retrieve oil and gas in Tennessee, please do not gamble with our environment,'" Southerland said as she read her e-mail.

But she was shocked when we showed her what the supervisor of Tennessee's Oil and Gas Program wrote about her comment behind her back.

"No No No hey hey goodbye," she read aloud, adding: "I think that's very rude, very dismissive and condescending."

But that's nice compared to what the supervisor wrote on emails from other environmentalists. 

Michael Burton called some comments "stupid" and appeared make jokes about others.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Burton, "Did you write stupid on some of these comments?"

"I did," he admitted.

Why did he do that?

"It was a time of frustration and I vented my frustrations on paper," he answered.

Burton said that his notes were never meant to be public and he apologizes.

"Do you think people opposed to fracking are stupid?" NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked.

"No, not at all," Burton responded.

One of the comments he underlined and called stupid claims hydraulic fracturing has left "homes and farms abandoned, livestock gone" in other states.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked, "What's wrong with that comment?"

"There's no recorded incident of that happening anywhere in the United States because of fracking," Burton responded.

But, in Louisiana, 17 cows died after coming in direct contact with hydraulic fracturing fluid.

In Pennsylvania, methane gas filled homes near a fracking site forcing families to leave. The company responsible paid the families $1.6 million.

"This is not common," Burton said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "But it has happened."

"Apparently it has happened. Livestock has died, but I don't know if it was caused by the fracking fluid," Burton said.

Burton helped write new state rules overseeing hydraulic fracking that were just approved by a TDEC board.

Environmentalists blasted the process saying their comments were largely ignored and that the state favored the oil and gas industry.

"This is a charade," said environmentalist Bruce Wood as he spoke in front of the board last month.

Laine Southerland said, "They don't care about the public unless they agree with their agenda."

NewsChannel 5 Investigates asked Burton "Is there a culture in this department that discounts environmentalists?"

"No, not at all," Burton insisted.

Burton said that, despite his private notes, none of the comments received was dismissed.

"All comments are taken seriously," Burton said.

NewsChannel 5 Investigates followed, "They weren't here," referring to his notes.

"It was taken seriously," Burton said.

Southerland still plans to participate in public comment periods, but she said that this has opened her eyes.

"They asked for our opinion and then, when we express it, they dismiss it as stupid and hey goodbye," Southerland said.

TDEC released a statement saying it does not approve of Mr. Burton's comments, but acknowledges its employees are human. 

It said that public participation is valued.  The department did not formally discipline Burton, but said that it did talk with him.


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