DEP rolls back approval process for shale violations

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The state Department of Environmental Protection has completely rolled back a controversial, 5-week-old procedural change that required all field enforcement actions involving Marcellus Shale gas drilling operations be pre-approved by political appointees in Harrisburg.

Katy Gresh, DEP spokeswoman, said the department's oil and gas field inspectors are again allowed to write violation notices as they did prior to a March 23 internal department memo that directed them to take no action on violations until they received "final clearance" from DEP Secretary Michael Krancer and a handful of other administrators.

"The notice of violation process is just as it was. The inspectors don't need pre-approval and that has been communicated to them," said Ms. Gresh, who added that department administrators will continue to review the violations after they are written to ensure regulations are enforced consistently.

"That's a very welcome development. I'm glad to hear the directive has been rescinded," said former DEP secretary John Hanger, who criticized the procedural change for undercutting public confidence in environmental enforcement. Monday he said it "amounted to a detour that was unnecessary and unwise."

Staff at the DEP's regional offices grumbled at the March 23 memo and -- after it was leaked to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and other news organizations -- a storm of protests from environmental organizations and businesses followed. They feared the change would reduce enforcement of the state's fast-growing Marcellus gas drilling industry and endanger the public.

The DEP said the procedural changes were only meant to be a three-month "pilot program" aimed at improving enforcement "consistency." But 42 environmental groups, faith groups and businesses sent a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett on April 7 asking him to rescind the new procedures immediately.

An April 27 letter from Mr. Corbett to Jeff Schmidt, director of the Sierra Club Pennsylvania Chapter, states that while administrative reviews will continue to "enhance effectiveness," field inspectors will "maintain the same ability to issue notice of violations as they have in the past." Other groups signing the April 7 letter received the same response from the governor.

"I wouldn't complain about [the review], as long as they're not putting handcuffs on the environmental cops," Mr. Schmidt said. "I'm glad to hear it's rescinded."

Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future, a statewide environmental advocacy organization active on Marcellus Shale drilling issues, characterized the DEP's attempt to change the enforcement procedure as "a stumble."

"The three-month pilot program amounted to backpedaling, and the department was not sensitive to how worried and concerned the public is about Marcellus Shale drilling issues," Ms. Jarrett said.

"We're satisfied with this change back to the way it was, but we're taking a trust-but-verify approach going forward. We'll be doing our own independent monitoring of the department's enforcement across all programs with a special eye on the Marcellus drilling."

DEP inspectors issued 1,227 notices of violations in 2010 and 68 in January 2011.


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


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