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Pennsylvania environmental department fronts for frackers

By Betsey Piette

November 15, 2012

For years, Pennsylvania families living near natural gas drilling activity have relied on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to determine if hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was impacting their well water. Little did they know that the DEP was systematically withholding information on potential contamination by issuing incomplete test results.

This practice, dating back to 1991, was confirmed by the testimony of DEP employees Tara Upadhyay and John Carson in connection with a lawsuit brought by eight Washington County homeowners against Range Resources and 12 of its subcontractors.

John Smith, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, described the DEP’s water contamination findings as “based on a system designed not to identify contamination.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2)

Under oath, Upadhyay, a DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director, stated that the DEP’s lab identified volatile organic compounds, known components of fracking fluid, in one plaintiff’s water well. Exposure to these compounds has been linked to serious sinus, skin, neurological, liver and kidney problems. Yet the agency’s letter to the plaintiff dismissed these findings as laboratory error, claiming his water was not contaminated by drilling activity 3,000 feet from his home.

While water may be tested for 24 metals related to gas drilling under state guidelines, reports given to homeowners routinely identify only eight of them: barium, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium and strontium.

Depositions from the DEP whistle-blowers alleged that the presence of other heavy metals, including boron, chromium, cobalt, lithium and titanium, are tested for but deliberately not reported, even when levels violate safe drinking water standards. Testing results for the volatile organic compounds acetone, chloroform and t-butyl alcohol are also not reported. These compounds, as well as several of the omitted metals, are known fracking-related contaminants and carcinogens.

The tainted DEP reports have often been used to dismiss claims of Pennsylvanians who suspect their water and their family’s health are at risk from drilling. Complaints about water contamination in legal cases in Washington County, the Woodlands area of Butler County near Pittsburgh and Dimock in Susquehanna County were all dismissed because of DEP’s reports. This limited reporting clearly serves the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry’s claim that fracking is “perfectly safe.”

Adding insult to injury, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said, “That the lab is capable of doing additional analysis for a particular investigation doesn’t mean that our analysis was inadequate or incomplete.” (Associated Press, Nov. 2)

Sunday also threatened that “the DEP may not be able to invoke the presumption of liability to hold drillers [responsible]” if people don’t allow the gas companies to do pre-drill sampling. This sampling supposedly determines if contamination existed before drilling. (Shalereporter.com Nov. 3)

In his deposition, Carson, a DEP water quality specialist, stated that a special lab code, “942 Suite,” is used for Marcellus Shale water contamination complaints. Upadhyay confirmed that this code means “don’t test for or report on certain chemicals” found in fracking fluid, limiting the information going back to DEP field offices and to property owners. Suite codes 942 and 946 are also used by the DEP to omit or hide testing for drilling-related compounds.

Pennsylvania DEP Director Michael Krancer has publicly stated that “at the end of the day, my job is to get gas done.” Krancer was appointed by the current and openly pro-drilling governor, Tom Corbett. He directed DEP investigators to not issue violation notices to shale gas drillers, even when an active leak or major violation is ongoing, without first getting approval from the state’s capital in Harrisburg. A storm of protest forced the reversal of this policy.

Despite DEP claims that the omitted chemicals were not linked to fracking, a 2009 study clearly connects them to the practice. In samplings of water at 19 locations before and after fracking, the study found several of the metals in the post-fracking flowback water. The study, “Sampling and Analysis of Water Streams Associated with the Development of Marcellus Shale Gas,” was prepared for the industry-funded Marcellus Shale Coalition. (Shalereporter.com, Nov. 3)

State Rep. Jesse White called for state and federal government investigations of the DEP for alleged misconduct and fraud, calling the situation “beyond outrageous.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2)

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UPDATED Nov 16, 2012 11:00 AM
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