It involves one of Pennsylvania's most controversial enterprises and it's coming under the welcome scrutiny of the state's fiscal watchdog.
Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is beginning a review of the state Department of Environmental Protection's water regulation, testing and enforcement program on Marcellus Shale gas drilling. The performance audit will examine 2009-2012.
Although the drilling has been an employment boon to Pennsylvania, it has triggered concerns and allegations about the safety of nearby water supplies. Rural residents who rely on wells feel particularly vulnerable, while those in urban areas with water treatment plants have wondered about the impact of wastewater disposed after the fracking process.
Since this is a state with many industries that can release toxic materials, it is sometimes difficult to pinpoint the source of harmful discharges. That makes the role and responsibility of DEP in safeguarding water quality all the more critical.
Nearly two years ago the Corbett administration wisely asked drillers to stop sending wastewater from shale drilling to municipal sewage and commercial treatment plants that were dumping it into waterways that provided drinking water. So it understands the health hazards posed by some of the wastewater's bromides, salts and other dissolved solids. (Now much of that briny waste is shipped to Ohio, where it is deposited in injection wells deep underground.)
Last year DEP took criticism for the quality of its lab reports on drinking water contamination complaints stemming from Marcellus drilling. The information surfaced in court testimony given under oath by DEP staff. This audit should shed some light on those and other tests.
DEP officials say they will cooperate with the auditor general's review and are committed to maintaining water quality. For his part, Mr. DePasquale said the audit will be constructive and also point out what the agency is doing well.
The auditor general is right when he says "we must strive to grow our economy and protect our environment and public health at the same time." By looking over DEP's shoulder, he can help the state accomplish both.