Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Pa. Auditor General finds state’s fracking oversight a fiasco Probe finds lack of inspections, enforcement, transparency

Pennsylvania’s regulation of the shale gas boom has been underfunded, inconsistent and ineffective, according to an investigation by the state’s auditor general released today.

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.


  1. None of this comes as a surprise to those who have been closely following what is going on in PA, but I am very happy to see the issue being addressed by PA's Auditor General Eugene DePasquale and I hope that residents in PA, NY, and everywhere else will pay attention to DePasquale's findings.

    On a related note, the PA DEP is releasing data showing that 209 water supplies in PA have been affected by oil and gas operations since 2007, with most of the damage occurring in Bradford and Susquehanna Counties:


    Given that the PA DEP is understaffed and underfunded, one wonders if there are many additional cases of water contamination that should have been included in the PA DEP's database, but ended up being overlooked or swept under the rug. Even if that is not the case, and 209 is the accurate number, it is certainly a large enough number to cause grave concern.

  2. Has anyone been watching the PBS Mystery series "Endeavour?" It's a series centered around the "Inspector Morse" main character - as a young man. Yes/no? Anyway, we are finding out that young Morse is in the middle of a highly corrupt circle of shadowy people including businessmen, politicians and police. All within Oxford, England. Man, that town has a lot of murders, if you include the original Morse series, Inspector Lewis and now Endeavour. For some reason, I thought of Pennsylvania and its dealings last episode. This post confirms my musings even more.

  3. In regard to the 209 damaged water supplies I mentioned in my earlier comment--according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article referenced in that comment, 48 of the damaged water supplies were in Bradford County, and 35 were in Susquehanna County. (For those who do not know, these are adjoining counties in northern PA, next to the NY border.) So those two counties had a total of 83 confirmed cases of damaged water supplies, while the entire state had 209 cases. So Bradford and Susquehanna Counties had almost 40% of the damaged water supplies. When I consulted the PA DEP's data on the number of wells drilled per county during the period 1/1/08-7/1/14 (http://www.portal.state.pa.us/portal/server.pt/community/oil_and_gas_reports/20297)
    I found that Bradford and Susquehanna Counties combined had only about 11% of the wells drilled during that period in the state. So that's about 11% of the wells, and about 40% of the cases of confirmed water supply damage. There may be many reasons for these disproportionate numbers--maybe it's a reporting/enforcement artifact, maybe there are more people in these areas dependent on private water wells, maybe it's a geological difference. But whatever it is, I think it's clear that further investigation is needed.

    1. Mary, Thanks for doing the math and pointing this out. Yes, Bradford/ Susquehanna Counties are confirmed hotspots for water problems. Many factors may be at play, but geology is certainly one of them, according to geologists I have interviewed. Upstate NY has a history of its own methane problems with conventional wells, which I recount in my book, although documentation is scarce due to lack of reporting requirements.

    2. Thanks, Tom. Do you know in what way(s), specifically, the geology comes into play?

    3. Not specifically. But it has been explained to me that certain areas along the NY/Pa. border tend to have faults that serve both as water conduits but also make methane migration more problematic. The methane problem is compounded by drilling.

  4. Any insight on the Colorado fracking compromise? It may impact PA and potentially NY. Who were the environmental groups inside the smoke filled room? Probably not smoke filled, but closed door.

  5. Tom Wilber is a idiot who l likes to hear himself talk , frack all we want because it frees us from the middle east you idiots. Whatever the risks it worth it to America. Obviously Tom Wilber is fucking clueless and trying to sell books that nobody wants

    1. I'm watching you idiots in c span snd you all make me sick . This is America snd we should tap all resources no matter. We fig the fils snd killed me miners. Stop being fucking ass holes snd let the world tiger it out . You just wznt to sell book you selfish ass hole

    2. Tambo -there are other forms of energy that are freely available to us, cheap to acquire and do not cause these problems that fracking causes and also help to protect us from the disaster that is climate change.