DEP must do better: The public is left with too many questions on drilling

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In the past seven years, oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times. That sounds bad, and it is troubling for sure. But how bad? That’s not clear.

The Department of Environmental Protection, in response to an open records request from the Post-Gazette, released a list of cases when oil and gas operations either polluted or reduced water flow in 77 communities across the state, information that the DEP plans to post on its website soon. So far, though, the data is too skimpy on specifics to help residents understand what’s really going on.

The document released to the newspaper did not include addresses of affected properties, companies that were responsible, what pollutants were found in water or what kinds of disruptions took place. That’s a lot of unknowns.

The DEP says it is enhancing the data and intends to include links to the letters and orders in each case at some point, which would be an improvement but one that has been too slow in coming. News organizations had to argue long and hard to gain access to many of the public records associated with the wells.

Similar questions related to transparency were raised in a performance audit of the DEP’s monitoring of shale gas development that Auditor General Eugene A. DePasquale released on July 22. Among his conclusions was that, from January 2009 through December 2012, the department did not provide sufficient information to the public.

It described the DEP’s website as “a spider web of links to arcane reports” that left users with “a dizzying amount of data. ” 

In its reply to the audit, the department defended the site but acknowledged that it “does not provide the public with the ability to instantly access the information DEP collects and electronically maintains.” It further said many records exist only on paper. The audit raised other issues, and the administration rebutted them, saying changes have been made since the audit period closed.

The audit said that the department hadn’t been prepared to handle the rapid expansion of shale gas drilling, and that both before and now, it is not adequately staffed or funded. The DEP says some of the deficiencies will be addressed by higher permitting fees that recently were approved.

Two things are known: The public needs more details about damage to water supplies from oil and gas drilling and the accessibility of DEP records overall is insufficient. The DEP needs to do a much better job.

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