Shale Gas Drilling PA

Workers change the equipment March 12, 2020, on the drilling platform at a Seneca Resources shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary's, Pennsylvania.

(The Center Square) – A week after Pennsylvania environmental officials came under fire for failing to protect the public from the alleged health impacts of natural gas drilling, the industry wants to set the record straight. 

The Marcellus Shale Coalition said this week that the grand jury report, released by Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s office June 25, ignores more than a decade of escalating regulations on the state’s oil and gas industry and “exhibits a jarring lack of reality as to how shale gas development occurs in Pennsylvania.”

“Environmental safety and public health is a priority for the industry,” MSC President Dave Spigelmyer said in a letter to the General Assembly on June 30. “The tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who work across the sector … have every reason to place the highest value on regulatory compliance and transparency.”

The investigation – more than two years in the making – concluded that the economic windfall of natural gas extraction blinded regulators at the Department of Environmental Protection to its adverse health and environmental impacts and encouraged a culture that discredited the complaints of those living closest to drilling sites.

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 well water contaminated with unknown chemicals that caused rashes and birth defects and air pollution so dense it triggered nosebleeds 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.

“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” Shapiro said. “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.”

The DEP and the Department of Health both challenged the report’s conclusions as inaccurate, inflammatory and based on anecdotal testimony with no references to dates, places, times or corroboration from medical experts, among other glaring omissions.

Spigelmyer also discredits the report’s narrative by highlighting Pennsylvania’s national reputation as a model for oil and gas regulatory framework, with 43 laws on the books, seven technical guidance documents and 28 permit authorization packages. In the last decade alone, DEP inspected unconventional well sites more than 134,000 times. He charged that no one on the grand jury, nor Shapiro himself, ever set foot onto a well site.

“For anyone to suggest that we are not protecting our environment and public health while responsibly and safely producing clean and abundant American natural gas should better understand the facts and science behind natural gas energy development,” he said.

Further, Spigelmyer said, Act 13 of 2012 satisfies many of the recommendations issued in the grand jury’s report – from establishing a safe setback distance for no drill zones to forcing companies to disclose chemicals used in the hydraulic fracturing process to physicians when asked.

Act 13 expanded the distance a well can be constructed from 300 feet to 1,000 feet from public water wells and springs and 500 feet from buildings. Spigelmyer described this as a “safe” distance – the second most generous in the country – and widely endorsed and accepted by the industry and environmental groups alike. He said the report’s recommended 2,500-foot setback exists only to halt future development in its tracks.

“A 2,500 feet prohibition for development has been specifically advocated by opponents of natural gas development, as it would essentially make much of the shale play in the Commonwealth undevelopable, resulting in a significant impact on the private property rights of tens of thousands of landowners who wish to develop their mineral rights,” he said.

Environmental groups argue, however, that research has shown over the last decade that a 500-foot setback isn’t enough to prevent adverse health effects – and it's time lawmakers recognize it. 

Alison Steele, executive director of the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, said her organization’s research concludes that safe no-drill zone setbacks should expand to at least 3,281 feet – and 6,600 feet for larger operations – to reduce residents’ exposure to dangerous emissions. Even at those distances, she cautioned, it’s still not entirely safe.

“Our recommendations are based on public health outcomes and nothing else,” she said. “We aren’t an anti-fracking organization. We are a public health organization.”

“The clear and convincing evidence gathered in the report shows that allowing heavy industrial activity like unconventional well drilling to occur within 500 feet of a hospital, school, retirement home, or private residence is highly dangerous,” said Joe Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council. “The grand jury report explicitly states that one point is impossible to deny – ‘the closer people happen to live to a massive, industrial drilling complex, the worse it is likely to be for them.’”

Steele said her organization, including its own toxicologist, testified before the grand jury about its conclusions on the adverse health impacts of shale gas drilling – dispelling the notion that no medical experts corroborated the evidence in the report.

Minott also challenged the coalition’s insistence that Act 13 gives physicians information about which chemicals companies routinely use in hydraulic fracturing – information that is otherwise protected as a trade secret. 

“Health care providers were permitted to access fracking chemicals deemed a trade secret only when a 'medical emergency exist[ed]' and after signing a confidentiality agreement,” he said.

Steele said the law also doesn’t apply to chemicals used during drilling or any other part of the extraction process. Nor does it provide any advance notification that such chemicals will be injected into the surrounding water table.

“It’s absolutely not public information right now,” she said.

In 2016, Minott said the state Supreme Court struck down the onerous qualifier for accessing information about chemicals, but said the knowledge is still limited to health care providers alone.

Besides, he said, Spigelmyer and the coalition seem to be missing the point of the report, saying the group “ignores that the best laws in the world don’t matter unless they are enforced.”

“MSC contends it [gas drilling] is heavily regulated, and therefore safe,” he said. “This suggestion ignores the clear findings of the grand jury that the state was neither abiding by nor enforcing many of these laws – it was as if the laws didn't exist.”

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.