Gas Drilling-Well Regulations

A crew works on a gas drilling rig at a well site for shale-based natural gas in Zelienople, Pa.

(The Center Square) – A blistering grand jury report released Thursday said the economic windfall of natural gas extraction blinded Pennsylvania regulators to its adverse health and environmental impacts and encouraged a culture that discredited the complaints of those living closest to drilling sites.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office released the long-awaited report just one week after charging Texas-based Range Resources with environmental crimes after it dumped 2,000 gallons of polluted gas well waste water onto properties neighboring its Washington County hydraulic fracturing operation.

In hydraulic fracturing, also known as "fracking," pressurized water is forced into fissures deep below the Earth's surface, forcing those fissures to widen to the point where the gas can be extracted.

“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” Shapiro told reporters Thursday. “There remains a profound gap between our constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.” 

But the grand jury’s report said the industry suffers from more than just bad actors. Rather, more than a decade of lackadaisical oversight from both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health allowed Range Resources and others to contaminate residents’ wells and pollute the air around their homes without consequence. 

“We appreciate that not every complaint is founded,” the report says. “But, in areas of this Commonwealth where fracking has taken a toll, many people do not believe that DEP is an honest broker.” 

The report is based on testimony from hundreds of witnesses living along the Marcellus Shale that stretches nearly 600 miles across the state from its southwest to northeast corners. After drilling companies moved in more than a decade ago, residents began complaining about wells contaminated with unknown chemicals that caused rashes and birth defects and air pollution so dense it triggered nose bleeds and respiratory conditions.

But these complaints to the DEP over the years led nowhere, as residents said employees routinely dismissed their problems based on little more than reassurance from gas companies that nothing was amiss.

Likewise, the grand jury accused the Department of Health of overlooking the connections between hydraulic fracturing and rising rates of cancer, asthma and birth defects in nearby communities. It commends the department’s recent commitment to study the industry’s adverse health impacts as a start – a long overdue one that still falls short of a “proper response.”

“As we see it, the purpose of government agencies like DEP and DOH is to proactively prevent harm, not to wait and see if the worst really happens,” the report says. “There has already been too much of that.”

To remedy the situation, the grand jury recommended eight changes that would address the issues raised in the report, including: expanding no-drill zones from 500 feet to 2,500 feet; forcing drilling companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used in the drilling process; regulating gathering pipelines that transport natural gas hundreds of miles across the state; measuring all sources of air pollution; requiring safer transport of contaminated waste; banning DEP employees from taking jobs in the natural gas private sector for a period of time after resigning from the agency; giving the attorney general criminal oversight over the industry; and conducting a more robust public health response to the effects of living near drilling sites.

The recommendations, however, don’t sit well with the DEP, which rejected the report’s claims as inaccurate and inflammatory and based on anecdotal testimony with no references to dates, places, times or corroboration from medical experts, among other glaring omissions.

“DEP is certainly concerned with the potential health impacts of unconventional drilling, but this report does not contribute to a scientific or medical understanding of whether there was, is, or possibly could be an association between unconventional gas development and observed health problems,” the agency wrote in its defense.

The agency said the majority of the report’s recommendations can only be enacted by the General Assembly. It also challenged the perceived “revolving door” that supposes DEP regulators, favorable to the industry, flock to more lucrative private sector gas jobs at every available opportunity.

“What all Pennsylvanians should know about DEP’s employees is that the Oil and Gas Program has been developed and implemented largely by a handful of dedicated individuals, most of whom have worked with the agency since the arrival of the industry in Pennsylvania, and are career employees who choose to remain in public service because they believe in the mission of the agency,” DEP said its response.

The Department of Health, in its own response, made similar comments, noting that the grand jury’s secrecy and unwillingness to engage the agency led to a host of inaccuracies and misconceptions about its perceived role – or lack thereof – in responding to fracking-related health issues.

“DOH has proactively invited people to report health concerns related to fracking, collected scientifically-useful data, conducted research, collaborated with DEP, published data to inform the public, referred individuals to doctors expert in environmental health, made available other resources, and more,” the department said. “While DOH has improved its response to fracking over time, and will continue to do so, it is wrong to suggest that DOH is sitting idly by or, worse, purposefully ignoring evidence of the health effects associated with fracking. That suggestion is both untrue and damaging to the public interest.”

Meanwhile, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, and industry organization that represents drillers in Pennsylvania, similarly took issue with the report.

"Our industry’s long and clear proactive and collaborative approach to ensuring Pennsylvania’s regulations encourage safety is unfortunately not reflected in this report, which we are closely reviewing," the coalition's president, David Spigelmyer, said in a statement. "For example, Act 13 already requires the disclosure of chemicals, including proprietary information, which the public can access through fracfocus.org. … In fact, Pennsylvania’s rigorous regulations and strong permitting requirements have been recognized by independent environmental review organizations as effective models for others to follow."

Staff Reporter

Christen Smith follows Pennsylvania's General Assembly for The Center Square. She is an award-winning reporter with more than a decade of experience covering state and national policy issues for niche publications and local newsrooms alike.