On the heels of news that natural gas production in the Marcellus Shale hit an all-time high in July, as well as the revelation that new fracking wastewater leaks have contaminated groundwater and soil south of Pittsburgh, the environmental non-profit Earthworks released a report Wednesday documenting the failure of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection to oversee the rapid expansion of oil and gas drilling.
"[O]ur findings indicate that Pennsylvania is making a choice to sacrifice the health of its communities and environment in the interest of supporting and rapidly expanding the gas and oil industry," says the report, titled Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement (pdf).
Not only is it very difficult for residents to know whether a nearby operation poses risks to their health and families, and why, but regulators themselves are not capable of reliably answering that question. In the midst of a statewide rush to drill, DEP is unable to sufficiently respond to citizen concerns, conduct inspections and investigations, collect the information needed to enforce regulations, and uphold the agency’s own mandate.
After reviewing everything from permits and testing results to facility records and maps, Earthworks concludes that: there are huge information gaps related to the extent and effects of air and water pollution; water contamination from oil and gas operations is likely understated; residents bear a heavy burden of proof of contamination; and waste management procedures don't comply with regulations.
Overall, the report shows the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to be overly lenient with and accommodating to oil and gas operators.
The authors charge that the DEP "prioritizes fixes over fines, reducing deterrence of potential violators" and that inspections drag on too long, sometimes for years — if they happen at all. Eighty-three percent of active wells were not inspected in 2013, according to Earthworks.
Despite all this, the Pennsylvania DEP continues to swiftly issue new permits without taking cumulative effects or watershed protections into account; frequently issue waivers that let companies get around regulations; and allow operators to expand their facilities without requiring new permits or additional review.
"DEP is charged with protecting the environment and the public," Earthworks says, "but is under strong political pressure to advance an industry that harms water, air, and health."
The findings echo those in a report released last month by the state's Auditor General, which charged the DEP with being "woefully" underprepared to manage oil and gas drilling while protecting citizens.
All this bears out in Washington County, to the southwest of Pittsburgh, where regulators were alerted to problems at three "impoundments" that store waste water from multiple well drilling and fracking operations. In response, the DEP issued one "notice of violation" and ordered increased testing and monitoring at two other sites. The state agency did not let residents know about the contamination.
According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “At no time was the township board or its residents notified of the potential contamination,” said Don Gennuso, township manager in Cecil, where one of the leaking impoundments is located. “I know they don’t want to scare people, but we really need to be informed.”
Township officials reportedly sent letters to Cecil residents, urging them to inform the DEP if their well water developed a foul odor or taste and to immediately get their water tested.
Among its many recommendations, Earthworks calls on the DEP to "stop bad actors" by cracking down on frequent violators; consider the number of existing wells in an area before issuing new permits; step up inspections; implement better record-keeping policies; and strengthen air and water quality testing and reporting.
This won't be easy. As the report points out: "Repairing this situation in Pennsylvania to prevent irreparable harm — and avoiding it in other states and countries contemplating an expansion of gas and oil development — will require a significant investment of both resources and political will."