Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection may not be protecting the environment and the Commonwealth’s citizens as much as they deserve.
That is the assertion of a report issued Tuesday by Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental watchdog agency.
The report begins by noting “more than 5,700 ‘unconventional’ shale gas wells have been drilled (in Pennsylvania) since 2005.” It also acknowledges DEP’s claim that staffing has increased – including, in 2012, about 83 inspectors. If the “unconventional wells” – a euphemism referring to deep shale fracking wells – were the only wells needing oversight, that would mean about 68 wells for each inspector.
“Unconventional” refers to a process of drilling straight down more than a mile, then as far as two miles horizontally – then pumping up to 12 million gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the well, at pressures sufficient to shatter the shale, releasing the natural gas it has held for millions of years.
The natural gas industry says Marcellus fracking is perfectly safe when it’s done properly. Opponents say that’s the problem. They point to studies and incidents which have described the deleterious effects of farm animals and people contacting toxic spills and leaking wells.
DEP relies heavily on self-inspecting and reporting by well drillers, but there have been cases in which that clearly was not sufficient. ProPublica, a national public interest news organization, reported in February that one of the largest drilling companies, Range Resources, had drilled a new well – an operation that takes about three weeks.
Four months later, the well was fracked with about six million gallons of solution.
A month later, Range Resources reported the process complete, apparently in violation of a state law requiring a report be filed no more than 30 days after drilling is complete.
In January, we reported that the owner of a wastewater injection well – employed as a receptacle for used fracking fluid – in Bell Township, Clearfield County, continued to use the well four months after it realized it was leaking into area ground water. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency fined Exco Resources $159,624 for the failure – which only came to light because area citizens detected the problem and reported it to the EPA.
The following month, DEP announced it had fined Chesapeake Appalachia LLC “$565,000 for multiple violations” in its Marcellus operations. The company, which at the time claimed to be the nation’s second largest producer of natural gas, was found to have insufficient erosion and sedimentation controls at a drilling site in Potter County.
The problem was revealed not by a DEP inspector but by heavy rains washing dirt off an access road and a nearby well pad, into the Right Branch of Wetmore Run, a state-designated “high-quality” stream.
When Gov. Tom Corbett, R-Shalegas, ran for office, he promised the Marcellus industry he would not allow taxes to get in the way of their profits. He also promised the citizens of Pennsylvania he would crack down on government waste.
Shortly after taking office, Corbett named Mike Krancer as DEP secretary, and C. Alan Walker, a coal baron in his own right, as secretary of the Department of Community and Economic Development. Increases in DEP funding begun under former Gov. Ed Rendell, D-AltFuels, were cut, and Walker was given authority to “streamline” the permitting process for Marcellus drillers.
Pennsylvania has a long history of violating its own constitution when it comes to choosing sides between environmental protection and industrial resources exploitation from denuding its forests, to stripping the land for coal, to virtually unfettered fracking in search of natural gas. The current DEP staffing economies almost assuredly will turn out to have been false.
Not all companies are scofflaws, willing to ignore environmental regulations when it is clear, for whatever reason, DEP is looking the other way. And accidents really do happen; that’s why they’re called accidents.
But trusting the companies to police themselves is only slightly more effective than having the home NFL team provide the refs from among players on their own bench.
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