Pa. auditor to review wastewater from shale well drilling

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Prompted by accidental spills and leaks from Marcellus Shale gas development and the industry's waste disposal practices, new Auditor General Eugene DePasquale will begin a review this week of the state Department of Environmental Protection's water regulation, testing and enforcement program.

Calling protection of the state's water resources, including rivers, streams, lakes and groundwater, "one of the biggest issues facing Pennsylvania," Mr. DePasquale said the performance audit will cover the years 2009 through 2012 and take up to a year to complete.

"Job creation and reducing our dependency on foreign energy sources are good reasons to develop the gas in the Marcellus Shale, but there are a lot of concerns, too," he said in a phone interview Friday. "We need to make sure our water resources are protected."

In a letter to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer last week, Mr. DePasquale outlined the objectives of the audit, which include determining the "adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."

DEP's water-testing program and state-run laboratory came under fire last year by some rural residents and environmental groups for producing inadequate and incomplete lab reports on drinking water contamination complaints related to Marcellus Shale development.

Mr. DePasquale's letter said the audit also will review DEP's performance in monitoring, testing and tracking the handling, treatment and disposal of shale gas drilling waste.

In April 2011, the Corbett administration asked the drilling industry to voluntarily stop disposing of drilling wastewater -- which was high in bromides, salts and other dissolved solids -- at 16 municipal sewage and commercial treatment plants that were discharging into rivers and streams used as drinking water sources.

"Those reports of problems certainly factored into [the audit]," said Mr. DePasquale, who took office last week. "It's clear in the state constitution that Pennsylvanians are entitled to clean water. Previous industries -- coal mining, gas and oil -- didn't get it right. We want to make sure, with this audit, to get it right."

Mr. DePasquale said the audit also will look at DEP's permitting program for Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations, whether the department regularly conducts follow-up inspections of all of those facilities and has systems in place to monitor their operations between inspections.

In a written statement released in response to questions about the audit, Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman, touted DEP's role in protecting the state's environment, including its streams and rivers, as well as its "lawful regulation of all of our job-producing industries."

"DEP is well-versed and experienced at protecting the state's waters, and that is a priority for the Corbett administration, DEP and all of its hard-working employees," Mr. Sunday wrote, noting a variety of regulatory upgrades contained in Act 13, the state oil and gas law supported by the Corbett administration and passed last year.

"DEP looks forward to assisting and working with the Auditor General and his staff to demonstrate how we are doing our job well to protect our water resources."

John Hanger, who headed the DEP during the Rendell administration, said the audit of the gas drilling regulation program is an important use of the auditor general's authority and not unprecedented. He said the DEP's dam safety program was audited during his tenure as DEP secretary.

"The audit of the gas drilling regulatory program is a good idea. People should get answers about the quality of water testing and the effectiveness of DEP oversight of the gas industry," said Mr. Hanger, who is an announced candidate for the Democratic nomination for governor next year. "It's a vital function of DEP to regulate the gas industry."

Mr. DePasquale, who had promised to undertake DEP audit during his campaign for auditor general last year, characterized it as "a constructive one whereby all entities work together to identify any problems, concerns and solutions, as well as any positive findings related to our audit objectives."

When the audit is completed, a final report will be made public, Mr. DePasquale said. It will contain recommendations by the auditor and DEP feedback and responses.

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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