Must crime follow Pennsylvania's gas drilling boom?
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In Bradford County, Pa., drunken driving arrests are up 60 percent. Criminal sentencing was up 35 percent in 2010. And in Towanda, the county seat, DUI arrests were up 50 percent.
Why? The frenzy of Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling, which has boosted the economies of some of Pennsylvania's smallest and most rural counties in recent years, has also led to rapid population swells and -- by extension -- more crime.
"Economic boom equals crime boom," said Daniel J. Barrett, the district attorney of Bradford County, which borders southern New York.
However, most of those who spoke to The Legal were quick to say they didn't blame the industry for any rise in crime; and several said the large drilling companies had been supportive of local law enforcement. Industry advocates, meanwhile, said they hadn't seen crime rise in areas where there's a high concentration of drilling activity -- and to whatever extent that crimes happens, it's not representative of the natural gas industry.
But according to Mr. Barrett, the big increases in DUI arrests and criminal sentencing in his county are at least partially attributable to the gas industry workers who have come to the county in droves over the past few years. And both local law enforcement and prosecution, including his office, are starting to feel the strain, he said.
"The issue is: We've got an expanded burden on the criminal justice system," he said, adding that while the private housing market, for example, responded to the population uptick by expanding hotels and increasing the number of rental properties, there has been no comparable way for law enforcement and prosecution to adapt to its increased caseload.
"The hotel that makes lots of money expands, but the criminal justice system that's taking more cases can't look to its customers to fund an expansion," he said. And while Mr. Barrett said he expected that his office would call for additional funding from the county government, for now his office and law enforcement agencies had handled the larger caseload by "enduring it."
According to Mr. Barrett, the state police have added five more troopers to the station in Towanda. Meanwhile, he said, "The county and local police agencies are reviewing what can be done to deal with the numbers, and the courts have had to allocate more time to criminal cases."
While the quantity of cases is a problem in and of itself, the nature of many of those cases has made prosecution more challenging. For example, because drilling work often requires a nomadic lifestyle, suspects, victims and witnesses can often be difficult to track down during investigations, Mr. Barrett said.
And the increase in the county's labor force has also led to an increase in non-English-speaking parties in criminal cases, something he admitted his office is ill-equipped to handle.
George W. Wheeler, district attorney of neighboring Tioga County, Pa., said he had also seen an uptick in crime, but unlike Mr. Barrett, had not felt as though his office was being spread too thin.
"We're not to a point where we're going to break or anything imminent's going to happen," he said, but added that if crime continues its upward trajectory, "there's definitely going to be a need for more resources."
Mr. Wheeler said DUI cases had noticeably increased over the past year and that many offenders had been found to be associated with local gas drilling operations.
But the county has also seen gas workers implicated in arguably more serious crimes, such as a recent case in which a drunken fight had left someone dead. Mr. Wheeler said his office was also investigating sexual assault cases in which the alleged perpetrators were gas workers.
"Obviously, a lot of people have come into this area [as the result of the gas boom], and the vast majority are here probably working hard to earn a living," he said, adding that some were simply "up to no good."
Industry advocates, meanwhile, said they didn't believe that counties with high drilling activity had experienced abnormal crime rate increases compared with counties in which little or no drilling occurs.
"We have not found it to be the case that there is rampant, widespread crime in areas where natural gas development is most concentrated," a Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesperson said, pointing out that the gas boom had done a lot of good, such as lowering unemployment and boosting tax revenues in a number of counties.
Still, some gas-industry-related crime is easy to pinpoint, such as traffic violations involving gas trucks, Mr. Barrett said.
Prosecution of those cases, however, can be surpisingly pricey, Mr. Barrett said.
"Very few people take a $200 speeding ticket to common pleas court," he said. "But an $18,000 [or] $20,000 trucking fine is a lot more likely to run into some expensive defense."
Still, Mr. Barrett stressed that he was not blaming the rise in crime in his county on any failures of the gas industry itself.
Instead, he said, the issue is more about statistical probability.
"I'm not anti-gas," he said. "But if you bring a couple thousand people -- particularly males -- to an area as temporary workers, there are going to be stresses put on law enforcement in the area."
Mr. Barrett said the large drilling companies had been "very supportive" of local law enforcement and prosecution, often requiring employees to submit to drug and alcohol testing, but that the smaller subcontractors they use were often less discerning about who they hire.
Not every county with burgeoning Marcellus Shale activity has seen a corresponding rise in crime. In April, Butler County Common Pleas President Judge Tom Doerr told The Legal he was bracing himself for the arrival of gas workers to result in more criminal cases.
But Butler County District Attorney Richard Goldinger said Monday that any such fears had yet to be substantiated.
"The drilling's going on here, but I haven't seen anything yet, though I think we still could," he said, explaining that drilling in Butler County was just getting under way.
"It hasn't really taken off here yet," Mr. Goldinger said.
First Published August 15, 2011 12:00 am