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
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
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.