Environmental groups urge Corbett to revamp Pennsylvania DEP's process for water testing

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The state Department of Environmental Protection's laboratory reports on well water contamination related to Marcellus Shale are outdated, inadequate and incomplete, according to 25 environmental organizations that have asked Gov. Tom Corbett to immediately reform the test-reporting procedures.

In a letter to the governor today, the groups ask that the DEP start releasing all test results from water sampling in cases of suspected contamination due to oil and gas operations, and release all results from past water testing.

The groups also are requesting the rollback of a new DEP policy that requires top administrators in Harrisburg, instead of water quality specialists in field offices, to approve all Marcellus Shale water contamination notices before water well owners are formally notified.

"Pennsylvanians need protection from the invasive pollution that drilling and fracking is bringing into communities and into the water people drink," said Maya van Rossum, a leader of Delaware Riverkeeper, an environmental group in eastern Pennsylvania. "But when pollution of a water well is suspected, DEP isn't on the job. Instead of digging deeper to discover the facts, they are doing cursory testing and holding back critical information from those affected, making their decisions fatally flawed."

Eric Shirk, a spokesman for the governor, said the groups' letter "does little more than echo unsubstantiated and outrageous allegations."

He said DEP's test reporting procedures are similar to those in other states and provide "for sound and fact-based determinations."

"DEP's oversight, coupled with Act 13, is protecting private water wells from the impact of drilling," Mr. Shirk said.

Act 13 is the state law governing Marcellus Shale drilling.

Over the past two weeks, since statements by a DEP laboratory supervisor in a sworn court document indicate that the lab has only been reporting some of the water test results to property owners, DEP Secretary Micahael Krancer has been aggressively defending the department's reporting procedures as valid and appropriate.

During the past two years, DEP investigations relying on an incomplete menu of laboratory test results have been unable to confirm 68 of 82 property owner complaints that Marcellus Shale gas development had contaminated water supplies.

According to water complaint investigation statistics provided by the DEP, during the first two years of the Corbett administration the department has "verified" five of 25 complaints it investigated so far this year and nine of 57 it investigated last year.

In 2010 DEP investigated nine complaints and confirmed them all, and in 2009 it verified the only complaint it received.

Although the DEP maintains that its special Marcellus Shale complaint reporting codes include measurements for eight metals, plus inorganics and organics, that are most likely to indicate water contamination related to Marcellus Shale gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, the test results for 16 other metals and inorganics are not disclosed in the water contamination reports given to property owners.

Drilling industry studies show many of those unreported metals are indicative of contamination from shale gas development. And the unreported DEP laboratory test results show several -- including lithium, titanium silicon, boron, cadmium -- were found in private well water samples from Butler and Washington counties in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Susquehanna County in the northeastern part of the state.

Despite those test results, the DEP issued determination letters to homeowners in several of those cases stating their complaints could not be verified.

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Don Hopey: dhopey@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1983.


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