Placing the health and wellbeing of Pennsylvania residents at great risk, the state’s environmental regulatory body is "woefully" unprepared to monitor and regulate the shale oil and gas drilling boom, charged a report released by the state’s Inspector General on Tuesday.
According to the audit, the “meteoric growth” of the shale gas industry, which is due largely to the proliferation of fracking, “caught the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) unprepared” to effectively monitor well safety, protect drinking water, and provide clear and timely information to citizens.
“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” said Auditor General Eugene DePasquale in a statement on the report’s release. “There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”
The IG report was released the same day that an investigation by the Pittsburgh-Post Gazette revealed that—according to the DEP’s own public records which were forcibly obtained through a court order—oil and gas extraction operations either contaminated or restricted the flow of water in the state 209 times since 2007.
Though the drilling industry dismissed those findings as being a small percentage of the thousands of shale wells drilled in the state, environmentalists say the actual number of incidents of drilling-related water contamination is likely far greater.
“Given what the Auditor General reported about DEP's shoddy documentation and haphazard citizen response, there's no doubt that the actual number of cases is higher,” Nadia Steinzor, eastern program coordinator for Earthwork’s Oil & Gas Accountability Project, told Common Dreams. “Industry's claim that water contamination has been minimal is based on a 'if you don't look you won't see' approach to regulation.”
As Karen Feridun, founder of Berk Gas Truth, points out: 209 wells is not 209 people. With individuals wells often serving multiple families, she says it is a "mystery" how many people are actually affected. Further, she notes that 209 reflects the number of "concluded cases," asking: “How many of those complaints of contamination remain inconclusive"?
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Residents living in fracking-intensive regions for years have complained of symptoms ranging from nose bleeds and rashes to nausea and respiratory issues. Many of the over 700 chemicals used in the process have been linked to cancer, birth defects, and infertility.
The IG audit, which examined the DEP’s records and operations from 2009-2012, found that due to the department’s policy of industry "voluntary compliance," regulators have "failed to consistently issue official orders [to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply] to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies."
Feridun notes that, for the countless Pennsylvania residents who have complained of their well water being disrupted or contaminated, once their water "is gone, it’s gone," adding: "It’s not going to get better someday."
The report describes the office’s complaint tracking and handling system—which documents environmental concerns raised by state residents—as “woefully inadequate,” saying that the auditors “could not determine whether all complaints received by DEP actually were entered into the system.” If one’s complaint was investigated, the IG report says that the DEP did a “poor job of communicating” those results to the citizens who registered the complaint.
Further, the IG found scant guidelines for how the DEP must conduct “the most basic regulatory responsibility” of inspecting shale drilling operations and that they lack a system to track fracking waste from well site to disposal. “Instead DEP relies upon a disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly,” according to the report.
As Feridun explains, this lack of data is a “huge frustration” for those trying to assess the true damage wrought by fracking in Pennsylvania, or for those state residents who are unaware of potential contamination in their area.
“The auditor general has confirmed what Pennsylvania residents have long been saying and experiencing,” Steinzor said in a press statement.” The impacts of gas development are real, intense, and not being addressed.”