Environmental groups ask governor to rescind water policy

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Fourteen environmental groups have asked Gov. Tom Corbett to reverse a recent policy change that puts decisions about water contamination complaints related to Marcellus Shale drilling in the hands of the department's top administrators instead of water scientists.

According to the groups, the state Department of Environmental Protection review policy, instituted in mid-September, "would delay warning the public of water pollution from oil and gas development."

"When water samples are polluted, the public should be warned immediately so affected residents can take steps to protect themselves," said Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, in a news release today. "They should not have to wait until after the news has passed through several layers of bureaucracy and political interference."

Although sources say it adds an extra layer of review and approval by top department administrators for contamination determination letters, spokesmen from the governor's office and the DEP said the policy change will not delay notification of homeowners about well water contamination.

Both cited a $1.1 million penalty assessed in May 2011 against Chesapeake Energy for a 2009 well water contamination incident and a fire, as proof the administration is committed to enforcing environmental regulations.

"We provide homeowners with sample results as we get them and are in continuous communication throughout our investigations, said Kevin Sunday, a DEP spokesman. "These communications occur well in advance of any determination DEP may make so that homeowners are always aware of the quality of their water. We respond to every complaint we receive and, when warranted, conduct a full investigation."

"The only thing being done differently is that DEP has asked that department inspectors notify DEP officials in Harrisburg about any decisions regarding well water contamination," said Eric Shirk, a spokesman in the governor's office. "It only makes sense that department executives be advised of what employees in the field are doing."

But an email sent Sept. 14 by Scott Perry, deputy secretary of DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management, directed the field offices to send only positive water contamination reports to Harrisburg for review by top department officials "prior to issuing any water supply impact determination letter."

Previously, the DEP's water quality specialists in district field offices would send "contamination determination" letters to homeowners based on water test results provided by the department's laboratory.

The DEP said in response to questions then that the policy change would not result in notification delays to homeowners about water contamination.

The groups say in their letter to the governor that the new policy is designed to accommodate shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania and its use of hydraulic fracturing, which uses millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals to fracture the shale underground and release the gas it holds.

Earthjustice sent the letter to the governor on behalf of Berks Gas Truth, Clean Water Action, Damascus Citizens For Sustainability, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, Gas Drilling Awareness Coalition of Luzerne County, Lehigh Valley Gas Truth, Lower Susquehanna Riverkeeper, Marcellus Outreach Butler, Mountain Watershed Association, PA Forest Coalition, Protecting Our Waters, Sierra Club - Pennsylvania Chapter, and Three Rivers Waterkeeper.

breaking - state

Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983. First Published October 23, 2012 12:15 AM


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