The Marcellus Shale gas boom sweeping Pennsylvania has led to citizens’ growing concern about its impacts. Current natural gas development relies on the use of many toxic chemicals and produces polluting waste on a scale unprecedented in the Commonwealth.
The Department of Environmental Protection is the state agency charged with protecting our water, air and land, as well as the public health and safety, from the negative impacts of natural gas development.
Because of the serious potential consequences to our public and private water supplies, citizens deserve assurance that DEP’s practices and resources to operate are sufficient. However, DEP’s budget has been consistently slashed over the years and is now only 40 percent of what it was 10 years ago, which is before Marcellus Shale drilling even began. And despite increased inspectors and penalties for regulatory violations, DEP simply can’t keep up. Eighty-six percent of oil and gas wells went uninspected in 2011, and violations by operators continue to rise at a higher rate than enforcement actions.
In November 2012, a court deposition of the technical director of DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories indicated that DEP routinely omits data from the final water-testing reports provided to private water well owners in response to water quality complaints.
I was astonished to learn that DEP has long possessed the ability to test for 45 pollutants in residential water contamination tests related to oil and natural gas development, but has consistently only tested for about half of those contaminants — leaving out dangerous toxins including selenium, arsenic, mercury, chromium, and others that can be associated with shale gas drilling. In addition, and just as troubling, testimony by a DEP employee points to at least one case where only partial results of water contamination data were provided to homeowners after they requested the results, leaving them ill-informed about the safety of their drinking water.
Individuals and organizations from all over Pennsylvania have tried to get answers from DEP about these water testing practices. Has the department established a consistent protocol for testing contaminants in residential water wells? Do they have a scientific basis for determining what to test for? How many cases are there in which only partial testing results were shared with homeowners? And finally, how are decisions made in the field and at DEP offices in response to homeowners’ concerns?
All of these questions remain unanswered.
It is not enough for DEP to assert that its decisions are made based on facts and data or that staff are professional and have matters under control. Events on the ground — often reported by those living near facilities who directly experience the impacts — have grown urgent. Residents across the state want, need and deserve details on how DEP does its work and how it plans to address problems now and over time.
As a public agency, DEP must not leave residents in the dark about matters related to their health and our shared water, land and air. We deserve better from the Corbett administration and this state agency charged with such important work.
Phyllis Mundy (D-Luzerne) is a Pennsylvania State Representative.