DEP Short-Funding Should Be A Budget Priority

Posted by By at 5 October, at 07 : 35 AM Print

A truck crash dumped “minor amounts of petroleum fluids” into Pine Creek, in Lycoming County, last week, according to Department of Environmental Protection Deputy Press Secretary Kevin Sunday.

“The spill amount is estimated to have been 3,600 gallons of treated flowback water and was contained,” Sunday said Thursday in an email. “Minor amounts of petroleum fluids from the truck entered the waterways.”

Early reports said booms were placed in Pine Creek, a few miles north of Jersey Shore on Pa. 44, to trap the spilled fracking fluid, but Sunday said the booms were to trap fluids such as oil and fuel from the truck.

“Flowback did not enter the creek,” he said.

At any rate, he said the booms stay in place for several days after the event to capture any remaining pockets of the motor vehicle fluids.

Ironically, the truck that crashed into a rock wall and spilled the fluids, some of which found their way into Pine Creek, was operated by Minuteman Environmental Services, a company which has made its name in environmental cleanup. But the company also hauls water and chemicals used in fracking deep shale in the Marcellus Shale that underlies much of Pennsylvania. The crashed truck had been hauling used and “treated” fracking fluids to new drill sites for reuse.

That issue is important where I live because Pine Run, at the southern edge of a heavy natural gas drilling field, flows into the Susquehanna River, which runs past Harrisburg and the City of York. York Water Company draws water from the river, and sells millions of gallons a day to residents on the eastern side of Adams County, where I live.

What affects York Water Company customers affects millions of water drinkers in two states between Pine Creek and the Chesapeake Bay.

Had the housing bubble not burst in 2008, there would be even more customers. Adams County had more than 8,000 new homes on the drawing boards at the county planning office, and the York Water pipeline was planned for extension that would have supplied three million gallons a day to the new residents.

Previously in this space, I reported a claim by the Washington, D.C.-based environmental watchdog group, Earthworks, that DEP might not be protecting the environment as much as it, and the state’s taxpayers, deserve.

For one thing, even with recent staff increases, DEP has 83 inspectors for some 5,700 fracking wells that need oversight.

“The Earthworks report fails to acknowledge that the number of inspections per well drilled has increased from 5.3 inspections per well drilled in 2009,” Sunday said, “to … more than 10 inspections per well drilled so far in 2012.”

The agency focuses its inspection efforts on new wells, with the rationale that new wells are more likely to have problems. Established wells, assuming they are problem-free, should stay that way. At least, that’s the current wisdom.

Sunday said although the department has only 83 inspectors on staff, it has use of staff in other program, such as radiation, water, waste and air quality, that also provide oversight and enforcement of the industry. And it changed regulations in 2011 to require that well operators inspect their systems quarterly, and report problems to DEP. No problems – annual reports still required.

That latter part is troublesome. History in many industries shows companies in pursuit of profits cannot always be trusted to run to put themselves on report when there is a problem. In my earlier report, I noted examples of Marcellus Shale drilling companies apparently counting on a paucity of inspectors to allows problems to go unreported. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.

To have DEP perform inspections on all the inspections on all the wells, including conventional oil and gas wells as well as “unconventional” – deep shale fracking – wells, would require a staff of thousands.

That would be a financial stretch.

So far, we know the chemicals can affect human and animal mortality, make drinking water flammable, and cause earthquakes when it is pumped into other deep wells as a disposal protocol.

But earlier this year, the legislature missed a great opportunity to establish a set of fees that would offer public confidence in DEP’s ability to keep a closer eye on the industry. Considering the stakes, the lawmakers should seriously consider increasing the tariff on natural gas production, and dedicate the money to increasing oversight on the thousands of wells drilled and expected to be drilled in the next few years.

Pennsylvania has a long history of finding out what should have been done long after the damage was done. We have the advantage of hindsight, revealing the hazards in previous centuries of unfettered resource exploitation. Some potentially catastrophic effects of fracking already are known.

Protecting the Commonwealth’s residents demands keeping an independent, watchful eye on the process.

Photo by Minuteman Environmental Services

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This post was written by:
- who has written 169 posts for Rock The Capital
John Messeder is an award winning journalist with more than 35 years experience writing about education, environment and local government issues. He has lived in Maine, Florida, California and Alaska, and, by temporary turns, numerous places in between. John also is an accomplished photographer, and avid hiker, conservationist, oral history buff, and author of several books he has not yet got 'round to writing. He lives in Adams County, Pa., just over a hill from Gettysburg, with his wife and Golden Retriever. He may be contacted at john@JohnMesseder.com - Email jmesseder

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