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Wolf cabinet members hear concerns at town hall in Jim Thorpe

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    Jerry Oleksiak, Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry, second from left, speaks during a “Cabinet in Your Community” town hall meeting Wednesday in Jim Thorpe. Joining Oleksiak, from left, are Cassandra Coleman, director of the governor’s northeast/central regional office; Dennis Davin, Pennsylvania Secretary of Community and Economic Development; and Cindy Dunn, Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. Scan this photo with the Prindeo app to see a video. JARRAD HEDES/TIMES NEWS

Published September 13. 2018 12:47PM

The PennEast pipeline project, admission fees for state parks and the opioid crisis were just a few of the topics discussed Wednesday during a “Cabinet in Your Community” town hall meeting in Jim Thorpe.

Three of Gov. Tom Wolf’s cabinet members were on hand to field questions from residents, business owners and government officials.

The panel included Jerry Oleksiak, Pennsylvania Secretary of Labor and Industry; Dennis Davin, Pennsylvania Secretary of Community and Economic Development; and Cindy Dunn, Pennsylvania Secretary of Conservation and Natural Resources. Cassandra Coleman, director of the governor’s northeast/central regional office, moderated the event.

Linda Christman, of the anti-pipeline group Save Carbon County, questioned Dunn on whether PennEast would be allowed to cut trees in state parks and forests for its natural gas pipeline project before getting the necessary permits for the work.

“When it comes to pipelines, the federal government certainly has the upper hand and limits what we can do,” Dunn said. “Since the governor took office, one of the things that has happened is an assessment is done to look at where a pipeline creates the loss of opportunity for fishing, hiking and enjoyable use of the natural environment. Companies are now asked to pay to compensate for that loss.”

Pipeline companies are getting better at reducing impacts to state parks and the like, Dunn said. She said her agency would check its authority on the tree-cutting issue.

The opioid crisis’s wide-reaching impact includes all three of the departments represented at Wednesday’s event.

The state’s prescription drug monitoring program works to ensure patients are not being overprescribed.

“We have a system in place to red-flag situations where that may be happening,” Oleksiak said. “But we do that while balancing the doctor-patient relationship and the privileges involved in that. The Department of Health gets regular reports on that.”

Some workplaces, Davin said, are eliminating drug testing in an effort to be able to choose from a wider employee base.

“This could affect companies if the employee relapses or that sort of thing,” he added. “It goes back to making sure we have people with the right skill sets available to take these jobs, so that it isn’t so hard on employers to find people. We see some light at the end of the tunnel on the opioid issue, but there will be some time before this is completely settled.”

State park rangers now carry Narcan, an opiate antidote, and have had both positive and negative outcomes, Dunn said.

Exposure to nature, she added, has been proven to help with the addiction recovery process.

Asked whether the state would ever consider charging an admission fee to get into state parks, Dunn called it a highly charged debate with legislators on both sides of the aisle.

“Our position has been to keep it with no entrance fee to allow all citizens to enjoy these parks,” Dunn said. “We do bring in over $25 million per year through renting kayaks, pavilions, and through the concession stands at the parks.”

Jim Thorpe Borough Manager Maureen Sterner questioned whether the state would be looking to increase funding to deal with blighted properties.

Davin encouraged her and all residents to continue to stress the importance of that funding to elected state officials.

“We’re working hard to try and get that,” he said. “We always ask for more at budget time and always get less.”

Palmerton resident Sarina Berlow sees an incredible opportunity for industrial development at the remediated former New Jersey Zinc west plant and asked what DCED could do to help make that happen.

Davin committed to touring the site to get a firsthand look at what has been done.

“The last major zinc site I can think of is in Beaver County, and that is now a $6-$7 million project, the largest in Pennsylvania, which will house Royal Dutch Shell’s massive ethane cracker plant,” he said. “A lot of these sites are in play right now for major economic projects, and I think this could be a similar scenario in Palmerton.”

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