Auditor General Eugene DePasquale likened the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection’s efforts to oversee the industry to “firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose.” He added: “There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”
The audit, covering a period of 2009 through 2012, was launched by DePasquale immediately after he was sworn in as auditor general in January 2013. It came in the wake of a controversy over whether state investigators obscure or alter the outcome of investigations into drilling’s impact on water supplies by disclosing an incomplete suite of chemical tests. The intention of the probe, according to a letter from DePasquale at the time, is to determine the "adequacy and effectiveness of DEP's monitoring of water quality as potentially impacted by shale gas development activities, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, screening, reporting and response to adverse impact such as contamination."
The report was blunt in its findings: the problems related to shale gas development are much deeper and broader than the DEP can presently handle, and they often go unaddressed or left up to industry without adequate follow-up by the agency. The problem is rooted to a wholesale lack of inspections, enforcement and transparency.
Often, according to the report, the agency does nothing about confirmed cases of water pollution tied to drilling problems. After reviewing a selection of 15 files of water degradation tied to nearby shale gas operations, auditors found the agency issued only one order for the driller to restore or replace the water supply. Instead, the DEP relied on voluntary action by companies to resolve complaints and violations.
“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”
Among other findings:
• The DEP does not post required inspection information on its website. Auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting. “It is unfathomable to us that for a basic responsibility of DEP -- inspecting oil and gas facilities – little criteria exists for when those inspections should occur,” DePasquale said. “Until DEP updates its out-of-date inspection policies, to include mandated inspections at specific critical drilling stages and during the life of the well, it will be nearly impossible to measure DEP’s performance in conducting this very basic responsibility to protect the environment.”
• The DEP does not use an official and independent system to track shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal. Instead, the agency relies upon a “disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.”
• With respect to transparency, auditors discovered that accessing DEP data is “a myriad of confusing web links and jargon” that was often incomplete. “We could not determine whether all complaints received by DEP actually were entered into the system. What’s more … it is difficult to figure out exactly how many complaints were received, investigated, and resolved by DEP,” DePasquale said.
Although reports critical of the gas industry and regulators are nothing new, the inspector general’s report is noteworthy because it comes from within an independent arm of state government.
The DEP disagreed with all of eight findings of the audit critical of the agency, but agreed with a majority of the 29 recommendations for improvement.
Auditors encouraged DEP to:
• Issue orders to a well operators who pollute water supplies —even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;
•· Develop better controls for how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;
• Hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;
• Create and follow policy requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
• Create a functional system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;
·• Reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner.