Fourteen environmental organizations have asked Gov. Tom Corbett to reverse a recent state 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 but never announced or reviewed publicly by the department, "would delay warning the public of water pollution from oil and gas development" and make field inspectors reluctant to report such findings.
"When water samples are polluted, the public should be warned immediately so affected residents can take steps to protect themselves," Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney at Earthjustice, an environmental law organization, said Tuesday. "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."
But a Sept. 14 email sent by Scott Perry, deputy secretary of DEP's Office of Oil and Gas Management, told 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 the district field offices would send the contamination determination letters to homeowners based on water test results provided by the department's laboratory.
The letter to the governor, written by Ms. Goldberg, said the new policy increases the probability that water contamination determinations will be under-reported.
"The DEP geologists and water quality specialists who are uniquely qualified to make water contamination decisions cannot help but be chilled by the knowledge that their superiors will be second-guessing their scientific determinations," Ms. Goldberg wrote. "The clear message being sent to these scientists is that the fewer notifications they send up for approval, the better."