Shale drilling fines drop under Corbett

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The state Department of Environmental Protection assessed significantly fewer fines on Marcellus Shale drilling operations during the first few months of the Corbett administration than under the Rendell administration, according to state data analyzed by Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future.

The statewide environmental organization's review found the DEP took 36 enforcement actions on 313 violations identified by field inspectors during the first three months of 2011 -- a rate of one enforcement action for every 8.69 violations. That's a much lower rate of enforcement than in the first quarter of 2010, when Gov. Ed Rendell was in charge and 122 enforcement actions were taken on 207 violations, or one enforcement action for every 1.7 violations.

The enforcement rate for the first quarter of 2011 also falls far below the annual rate for 2010 of one enforcement action for every 3.94 violations, and the 2009 rate of one for every 3.16 violations.

"It shows that the DEP is not taking enforcement actions at the same rate as it has in the last couple of years and not by just a little bit," said Jan Jarrett, president and chief executive officer of PennFuture. "It seems significant.

"Reading between the lines it seems to signal more emphasis on 'compliance assistance.' Instead of assessing fines and penalties, it seems the system is geared more to achieving compliance, and that seems ill-advised, given the scope of the natural gas drilling activities in the state."

The DEP was asked to explain the difference, and took a week to issue the following one-sentence response by spokeswoman Katy Gresh: "Before we comment on PennFuture's alleged conclusions, DEP will conduct our own analysis of the data."

Ms. Gresh would not say when the department will complete its analysis.

The apparent significant difference in enforcement actions coincided with an attempted procedural change by the Corbett administration in March -- that it has since rescinded and disavowed -- requiring field inspectors to get approval from department administrators before issuing notices of violation to Marcellus Shale drilling operations. The DEP had said the procedural changes were aimed at fostering consistency in writing up violations, but Ms. Jarrett said the PennFuture analysis shows a change in how the agency is handling enforcement penalties under new Secretary Michael Krancer.

She pointed to a June 2010 EOG Resources Marcellus Shale well blowout in Clearfield County that discharged thousands of gallons of fracking fluid and brine into a nearby creek. The accident caused DEP to shut down the company's drilling operations for 40 days statewide, and six weeks after the accident, it fined EOG and a drilling contractor a total of $400,000.

Contrast that, she said, with the Corbett DEP's response following a February 2011 flash fire that injured three workers at a Chesapeake Energy Marcellus Shale well drilling site west of Avella in Washington County and another accident at a Chesapeake well in Bradford County in April that allowed thousands of gallons of fracking fluid to flow from the site.

Chesapeake voluntarily stopped hydraulic fracturing activities in Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia to assess the cause of the April well accident, but DEP didn't mandate a shutdown and, although it did issue a notice of violation, has yet to assess any penalties for either incident, although one is expected soon, possibly this week.

Chesapeake resumed fracking in Ohio and West Virginia last month and Friday announced that it would resume operations in Pennsylvania. The company told the DEP that it would use local well-control specialists on any future accidents; for the Bradford incident a company from Texas was used, which DEP said delayed arrival of specialists.

"If any incident warranted fines, it should have been those," Ms. Jarrett said. "The fire at the well near Avella happened in February and it's May."


Visit post-gazette.com/pipeline for PG content and community contributions on the Marcellus Shale gas boom. Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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