One qualified and independent source will soon provide an answer. Im May, the office of Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is due to release a detailed investigation into the practice and protocol of the state's regulation of the drilling industry, a source from his office told me this week.
DePasquale announced the review in January, 2013, 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, 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."
In other words, the probe will get to a question at the crux of the fracking debate: whether and to what degree the DEP is safeguarding water supplies from drilling.
The DEP’s testing protocol for wells potentially affected by drilling operations entered the public spotlight with a case by Loren Kiskadden seeking damages for pollution against the agency and Range Resources. The case, now pending in the Court of Common Pleas, claims that the department withheld full results of tests of Kiskadden’s water in June 2011 and January 2012. The ensuing “suite code” controversy came to light in September 2012 with the deposition of Taru Upadhyay, the DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director, at a Environmental Board Hearing. Upadhyay testified that results for some metals, including copper, nickel, zinc and titanium, were not included in Kiskadden’s final report. This was not unusual, she said, because the lab only verifies concentrations of compounds ordered by the investigator from the oil and gas division, even if the samples were tested for a broader range.
DEP officials have since confirmed that the testing protocol for markers of contamination from Marcellus Shale production – including what and how many chemicals are included in the final analysis -- falls to the discretion of individual investigators because they are best able to judge what chemicals are relevant to the investigation.
Watchdog agencies have characterized the DEP’s approach as random, incomplete, and a violation of public trust. Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus Shale Policy Associate for Clean Water Action, said residents and watchdog agencies took it on faith that the department was following accepted protocol outlined by the federal Environmental Protection Agency in Method 200.7 – which requires testing for at least 24 different chemicals.
“This comes down to a lack of trust and a lack of transparency,” he said. “Nobody outside of the DEP offices knew this – that they were not quality controlling and quality assuring for the full 24 chemicals. It took a law-suit to bring that out … We need to have comprehensive testing, especially in a case where it originates from a residential complaint.”
Clean Water Action was one of a dozen agencies that signed a letter to the DEP on January 25, 2013 with concerns that the agency's testing methods “lack transparency; result in the withholding of vital data from affected households and the public; force residents to potentially undergo prolonged exposure to contaminants that impact health; and delay action necessary to correct pollution of drinking water supplies.”
But concerns of environmental activists are not shared by all. The DEP’s approach to regulation and enforcement under drilling supporter Governor Tom Corbett has a lot to do with the boss’s political values of how much government should be overseeing private business. The oil and gas industry – provider of cheap abundant energy that we all demand – has been the long-time beneficiary of regulatory passes. For starters, the entire problem of determining what, how, and if chemicals affect water is prodigiously complicated by the fact that the industry is exempt from federal laws that require disclosure and regulations of chemicals injected into the ground, and also laws governing hazardous waste coming out. Corbett, who won election in 2010 partially on a platform to limit state regulations on the industry, has been praised by industry supporters who defend the DEP oversight as sufficient and responsible.
No matter what it says, DePasquale’s report, coming in May, will likely be controversial due to the political volatility of the subject matter. In addition to the water-testing issue, the probe will “determine the adequacy and effectiveness of DEP’s monitoring of the handling, treatment and disposal of waste connected with shale gas development activity, including but not limited to systems and procedures for testing, tracking, treating, disposal, data collection and analysis, reuse and recycling, reporting, and response to adverse impact such as contamination.”
It’s sure to add a new wrinkle to the shale gas debate as the election year heats up, beginning with primaries among gubernatorial candidates who will likely have something to say about it. Those include John Hanger, a Democrat, who served as DEP Secretary under the Ed Rendell administration. Hanger is a gas supporter, but he is also in the pro-regulatory camp. As DEP chief he has been critical of – and sometimes at odds with -- certain companies he characterized as rogues. He has called on the DEP to reform its protocol to ensure a comprehensive data set of water test results gets to people who are potentially affected by drilling. The degree Hanger's message resonates with primary voters will be one of many tests of how much weight regulatory reform carries in the larger political equation.