DEP gets second dour report on gas well oversight

The issuance last week of a second report detailing myriad shortcomings in the state Department of Environmental Protection’s oversight and enforcement of Marcellus Shale gas development might have the agency feeling like a pinata after a party.

The latest report, which Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental organization, released Thursday, reviewed and analyzed DEP Marcellus Shale gas well drilling files and conducted its own air and water testing to detail how the DEP’s enforcement of shale gas regulations has been less than transparent or effective in controlling the exposure of Pennsylvania residents to unhealthy air and water.

Three weeks ago, state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a highly critical performance audit of the DEP’s shale gas industry oversight, including its failure to consistently pursue citizen complaints about drinking water degradation or issue enforcement orders for regulatory violations as the state oil and gas law requires.

Among its 25 findings, the 70-page Earthworks report alleges that the DEP’s oil and gas office:

■ has failed to consider the cumulative health impacts from shale gas development;

■ keeps incomplete permitting and enforcement records that make it impossible for residents to assess their exposure to air and water emissions;

■ has increased inspections, but they still don’t meet even the voluntary goals the department set;

■ poorly tracks, records and responds to citizen complaints;

■ puts a higher premium on speedy permitting than enforcement.

“The cases we reviewed, our testing and data analysis clearly shows that the DEP is unable to keep up with inspections or enforce its regulations and allows fixes over fines,” said Nadia Steinzor, the report’s lead author and Earthworks Eastern program coordinator. “Regulations should create a deterrent system and hold operators accountable.”

She said Earthworks performed its own air and water testing at residences near drilling and hydraulic fracturing sites and “found air and water contaminants consistent with gas development activity.

Eric Shirk, a DEP spokesman, dismissed the Earthworks report as containing factual errors and out-of-date data.

He said inspections are “up tenfold since 2006-07,” and enforcement has increased, too.

“The report says we don’t keep track of water supply impacts, but we do have all of that tracked,” Mr. Shirk said. “I don’t think it’s valid. It seems like it has more of a political agenda.”

The report, titled “Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania residents are left in the dark on health and enforcement,” is based on the most recent DEP data available and notes that the department is falling far short of its own inspection policy, which suggests gas and oil wells be inspected seven times before they begin production.

According to its analysis of DEP’s 2013 inspection report, Earthworks found that while the total number of well inspections has increased from 7,520 to 13,367 from 2008 to 2013, the average number of inspections at the state’s “unconventional” wells, those drilled into shale formations, has declined from 3.3 inspections per well in 2008 to 2.2 in 2013.

Even though the number of well inspectors and inspections have increased, 66,326 of the state’s 79,693 active conventional and unconventional wells, 83 percent, were not inspected once.

“How can the DEP assert that drilling is benign if it’s not doing the inspections?” Ms. Steinzor asked.

Oversight of the shale gas industry isn’t only a Pennsylvania problem, according to Bruce Baizel, director of Earthworks’ oil and gas accountability project.

“This report focuses on Pennsylvania, but it easily could have been written about Ohio or the federal Bureau of Land Management or Denton, Texas,” Mr. Baizel said. “[It] illustrates why many residents across the United States have given up on the idea that regulators can manage the oil and gas boom and are working so hard to stop fracking.”

The report also includes a case study of health problems Pam Judy and her family experienced at their home in Carmichaels, Greene County, where a shale gas compressor station is located 900 feet away and 35 gas wells (16 unconventional shale gas, 21 conventional gas) are within a one mile radius.

Earthworks plans to release one case study a week for the next six weeks to call attention to claimed health impacts the rapidly proliferating and widespread development of shale gas has caused.

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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