Pennsylvania: hundreds of water supplies contaminated while audit finds state unprepared to protect drinking water from fracking

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reports that  oil and gas operations have contaminated Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007.

Also in Pennsylvania, the Auditor General issued a report on the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and its performance in monitoring the potential impacts of shale gas development on water quality over a four year period. In sum, the audit showed that DEP is "unprepared to effectively administer laws and regulations to protect drinking water and unable to efficiently respond to citizen complaints."

While the conclusion is not a surprise to anyone who follows the issue of fracking, what is new and different is a public official saying it out loud.

I've blogged before about states lacking the resources to propertly enforce the laws that apply to the oil and gas industry, and the ratio of wells to inspectors remaining too high. For example, as of June 17, Colorado had 26 field inspection staff for 52,198 active wells, or more than 2000 wells per inspector (plus an additional 12 environmental staff).

Back to Pennsylvania. Some of the audit's most disturbing findings:

  • Although DEP is required by law to issue an administrative order when a company has adversely impacted a water supply, DEP fails to do so. In a review of 15 cases, DEP issued an order to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply to only one company. DEP claimed that orders are unnecessary if a company takes voluntary action to restore or replace a water supply.
  • Althouh DEP is required by law to respond to citizen complaints about adverse impacts to water quality within 45 days, DEP often misses the deadline. One district office responded within 45 days only 34 percent of the time. DEP also  often took too long to respond to citizen complaints. The DEP Pittsburgh regional office only responded to 64 percent of complaints within the 10-day time period.
  • DEP does not always "consistently and effectively" provide complainants with clear written results of investigations into drinking water contamination allegations.
  • DEP doesn't have reliable data on citizen complaints or inspections.
  • Oil and gas waste is only reported with industry data that is not verified. There is no reliable information that the waste is handled properly.
  • Although DEP is required by law to publish confirmed cases of groundwater contamination that result from fracking on its website, no cases have been published. The DEP states there has never been such a case, but the Auditor General responds that DEP has a narrow interpretation of the term hydraulic fracturing and that DEP should post information regarding "every credible case of subterranean water supply contamination from any oil and gas related sources whatsoever."
  • Information is not transparent to the public.

DEP disagreed with all of the audit's eight findings, another non-surprise. The Auditor General made 29 recommendations, eighteen of which do not require additional funding to implement. Pennsylvania should move to swiftly adopt these recommendations, and to fully enforce the law in a way that, as the Auditor General stated, provides "bite" as well as "bark."