This post considers the latest news about methane migration in Pennsylvania. But to tell that story, I first have to tell another story.
In 2010, the number of public relations specialists in the U.S. had risen to an all time high of 320,000. By contrast, the number of reporters had fallen to a low of 58,500. The fantastic trajectory of the PR business will hold strong at least through 2020 with a 21 percent growth curve, according to Statistics at the Department of Labor. Over the next decade, the number of new PR jobs alone will exceed the payroll of the entire news industry.
For professional reporters and those who value their vocational contributions to society, it’s only going to get worse. The reporting payroll is projected to decline by another 6 percent by 2020. That means the public will be receiving more information billed as news that has been shaped, spun, or fabricated by professionals working within the narrow parameters of particular corporate interests. This growing rubric of the Fourth Estate will use the traditional tools – press releases and phone calls -- to leverage stories into news outlets. It also has at its disposal Facebook, Blogger, and Twitter – powerful tools to bypass the working press altogether.
At the same time free content on the Internet has eroded the number of staff writers and newscasters and lent traction to corporate interests, it has given rise to a volunteer corps of citizen journalists, muckrakers, and filmmakers. Josh Fox and Michael Moore have become role models for a new breed of advocacy journalists who, once merely consumers in the Market Place of Ideas, now have new access as vendors via social networks. By way of example, I have written about Vera Scroggins, an amateur videographer who lugs equipment over hill and dale, into town and country, recording municipal meetings, toxic spills, and interviews with residents. She filmed operations of shale gas operators that were beyond the wherewithal of the sparse professional reporting staff in rural northern Pennsylvania, and posted footage on the Internet, providing a repository of information otherwise unavailable. Participation of people like Vera is a good thing. It’s empowered the populous by giving everybody a voice -- access to the public stump in the square, and the ability to share information.
But it comes with a cost. The indy and PR news sources that thrive on the Internet are a welcome boon to free speech, but they also tend to undermine the traditional free press, which is unable to generate on-line revenue sources needed to sustain professional reporting. Beyond that economic consideration, there is the matter of content: Independent news largely comes unfiltered for noise, bias, and confusion. When newspaper reporters get a fact wrong, large or small, they are called on it. If necessary, corrections are issued, and their frequency is considered in a reporter’s annual performance evaluation. Additionally, reporters’ work has to pass muster with a staff of editors. These editors undoubtedly have varying political views, but they are all professionally committed to serving the expectations of a diverse readership. Editorial staff is separate from the news staff, both in the physical segregation of office space and in clearly defined roles.
As the public turns to free content on the Internet at the expense of paid content by professional reporters, the type of credibility and checks and balances that professional journalists have traditionally brought to the public are disappearing. The depth of reporting, and the newspaper’s traditional role as advocate for open government and transparency in matters of public interest are also suffering with the decline of revenue available for investigative journalism. It’s not just about the revenue, it’s about the source of revenue – from an independent readership and viewers – that makes the press such an effective watchdog.
Now for the other part of this story.
The gas industry claims that drilling is not a public health threat, and that fracking fluid is harmless. In support of these claims it cites lack of evidence tying operations to pollution and illness. What’s missing is full disclosure. The industry operates on private property without the level of regulatory oversight that other industries face. (It is exempt from both federal Safe Drinking Water Act and hazardous waste laws that require disclosure of what goes into and what comes out of the ground.) When something goes wrong, it is often a matter between the company and the homeowner to resolve. When legal pressure necessitates, the industry can make the problem go away with settlements that contain non-disclosure clauses.
A recent example came to light with a personal injury claim against Range Resources and other operators by a family in Mt. Pleasant Township, Pa. Range Resources agreed to pay the Hallowich family $750,000 to settle a lawsuit for personal injury damages related to operations near their home. The case was settled by the parties in 2011, no official complaint was filed, and the records were sealed.
We only know this because the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and the Washington Observer-Reporter filed and won a suit to get the records unsealed. The unsealed documents also revealed that the PA Department of Environmental Protection did not maintain records of an investigation into a complaint about water contamination at a neighboring property, and that the investigator, Mark Kiel, soon left the agency to work for the gas drilling company he had been investigating. For every case that gets unsealed, there are hundreds, if not thousands of cases sealed in documents that are never opened because their public relevance goes unchallenged, and that’s largely because mainstream media outlets have fewer resources to do that then they did in the golden age of investigative journalism.
Meanwhile, both the DEP and gas companies are able to keep matters of public interest unfolding in Susquehanna County from full public view. Last week, the DEP issued a brief statement that exonerated gas company WPX of causing methane pollution in three wells in the Township of Franklin Forks. Yet the agency is not releasing any results related to the investigation or to its conclusions. It is known that the Franklin Forks area and the nearby Salt Springs State Park contain rich methane reservoirs in both deep and shallow formations (hence the attractiveness of the area to petroleum operators). Although the DEP released its conclusions that the gas affecting the water wells was not from nearby gas wells or production zones being tapped by WPX, it did not explain the source or course of pollution at concentrations five times greater than the threshold for explosion risks.
It’s been a high-visibility case dominated by interest groups. Yoko Ono and other celebrities supporting anti-fracking groups visited the site in January to press their case against allowing fracking in neighboring New York state. On the other side of the fence, the industry group Energy In Depth issued a press release titled “DEP Debunks Methane Claims in Franklin Township,” which seized on the conclusion of the DEP investigation as proof that the industry is being vilified. Meanwhile, the landowner of one of the affected wells – the Manning family – is suing WPX for the pollution. Given the trend, it would be unsurprising if this gets settled behind closed doors.
Franklin Forks may have been less of a story if not for events that have unfolded in Dimock Township, about a dozen miles to the south. More than four years after the explosion of a residential water well called attention to the problem, the DEP is still investigating recurring water pollution problems in the middle of a gas field being developed by Cabot Oil & Gas. Wells providing water to several dozen homes have been taken off line or fitted with filtration equipment to remove gas and other pollution since the water well of Norma Fiorentino exploded on New Year’s Day, 2009. Under the Rendell administration, the DEP cited Cabot for various violations related to the problems.
Now Governor Tom Corbett’s DEP is investigating cases involving two homes in an area where the agency has banned drilling of new wells in the wake of chronic water problems. Recent tests showed dangerous levels of methane flowing into residential water wells near the junction of Carter Road and State Route 3023. Yet the problem, in the eyes of the DEP, remains elusive. “We are slowly getting some test results back,” DEP spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said. “However - as per our attorney, DEP does not share test results from private water wells with anyone but the private well owner.”
To be clear, the agency has a policy of releasing incomplete data to homeowners, a policy that has produced much criticism but little action. Officials justify the long-standing practice of excluding some fields as a sound method to filter noise from relevant data. Critics argue that the agency cherry picks the data, and the unreleased fields might be useful indicators of drilling contamination and other problems. Moreover, homeowners have a right to all results of water quality tests that can flag health risks.
The fight over the cause and consequences of methane seeping into private water wells in Susquehanna County is one example of an issue that could stand a little more legal leverage from professional news outlets. While some outlets, including the Scranton Times-Tribune, do what they can with declining resources to report the story, readers would be well served by a legal challenge to the DEP’s refusal to release ground water analysis paid for by tax-payer money concerning matters of overwhelming public interest. News outlets, of course, have to choose their battles and they have less discretion than ever as their revenues fall. In the meantime, we do our best with half-page press releases issued by regulatory agencies, rhetoric from talking heads for or against fracking, or hyperbolic “I told you so” by PR firms and activists representing stakeholders.