Dirty numbers: Someone’s account of shale waste disposal is way off

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To say that the records of Marcellus Shale well waste disposal are riddled with gaps and discrepancies doesn’t begin to describe the scale of the problem.

A Post-Gazette review found that differences between the amount of waste that drillers said they delivered to landfills and the amounts the landfills reported receiving varied enormously. At the receiving end, nine southwestern Pennsylvania landfills analyzed by reporter Anya Litvak reported accepting three or four times the waste that drillers said they sent them.

The worst case was that of EQT Corp., which reported to the state Department of Environmental Protection that it sent 21 tons of drill cuttings and fracking fluid to landfills in 2013. But the landfills reported receiving 95,000 tons. That’s not a typo; it’s 4,500 times as much.

EQT was not alone, although it was exponentially further off the mark than other firms. Range Resources reported a total on waste disposed that was 22,000 tons lower than the amount the landfills said they had received.

Explanations for the under-reporting vary and include as possibilities human error, inconsistent understandings of what should be included in the reports, and the ways in which the information is supplied to DEP. For instance, drillers file electronic reports that are stored in a public database on the DEP website; landfills send paper copies to regional DEP offices.

All this conflicting data raises questions about DEP’s oversight. Although the agency said it has been aware of the problem for “a number of months,” it didn’t launch an investigation into EQT’s or Range’s reports until the Post-Gazette told the government what it had learned.

After-the-fact inquiries by the agency are not reassuring, and neither is DEP’s assertion that the landfill numbers are accurate and those are the ones it uses in making policy decisions.

DEP says it is trying to figure out why there are such huge discrepancies and why the drillers seem to be consistently low. If the agency expects the public to have confidence in its work, it’s going to have to do a much better job of reconciling the numbers.

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