When It Comes to Water Pollution from Fracking, Pennsylvania State Regulators Have Been Hiding the Ball

For Pennsylvania residents who suspect their drinking water has been contaminated by fracking, the situation has long been frustrating.  Because of legal exemptions for fracking, federal regulators are generally not involved, and drilling companies—along with state regulators at the Pennsylvania Department of Environment (DEP)—are often quick to blame preexisting “natural” conditions, even when, shortly after nearby drilling activities, water has turned brown, smelly, or flammable.

It has always been hard to explain the disconnect between the visible water problems experienced by residents on the ground and DEP’s unwillingness to take action.  This disparity has often been blamed on the inability to prove drilling has caused contamination in a particular case because of a lack of pre-drilling water testing in some areas.  Last week, however, a new and alarming possible explanation for DEP’s inaction came to light—the agency has been purposely ignoring portions of its own drinking water testing results that may have demonstrated toxic metals linked with fracking.

This new information was revealed in a deposition of the Technical Director of DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories, Taru Upadhyay, which was publicized in a letter addressed to DEP Secretary, Michael Krancer.  The testimony reveals that, at least in some cases, DEP uses a special coding procedure for testing drinking water in potential fracking contamination cases so that it can hide vital water quality information from itself and from the public. 

Here’s how it works:  DEP is required by law to investigate homeowner complaints of drinking water contamination related to oil and gas drilling and issue a written determination of its findings to the homeowner.   Complaints come to DEP’s Oil and Gas Division (OGD), which then sends a request to DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories (BOL) to conduct the testing.  BOL tests all drinking water according to EPA standards, which should require testing for a range of dangerous contaminants including 24 dangerous metals. 

But even where BOL tests for all these metals, that doesn’t mean OGD will see all of those results.  Each request sent by OGD comes with a specialized so-called “suite code,” which, in some cases, causes the BOL to withhold important parts of the results.  (For a really useful graphic on this system, click here).

In the fracking context, Director Upadhyay’s testimony shows that one code, 942, had been used to exclude fully two thirds of the testing results—16 of the 24 required metals—from the lab reports it sent to OGD and to affected residents.  The excluded metals include aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, chromium, copper, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, titanium, vanadium, and boron.  Many of these are found in fracking wastewater, and in excess doses, they are also known to cause health problems like diarrhea, vomiting, immune and nervous system damage, and cancer. 

While we don’t know yet how many times DEP has used these codes to bury its head in the sand (and it may be almost all the time), this practice is utterly unconscionable and unacceptable.  Imagine, what if you received a letter from the state telling you that there were no dangerous metals in your family’s water when it had only looked at one-third of the results?

This new and disturbing news comes on the heels of another worrying policy move by the DEP.  In September, DEP prevented its field offices from issuing contamination determination letters directly to residents, having all such letters sent to the head office in Harrisburg first.  The move will likely delay important water quality information in reaching residents and discourage DEP geologists and water quality specialists from making contamination findings when they know their superiors will be second-guessing their work.

Collectively, it increasingly appears that standard operating procedure at DEP is to prioritize drilling and gas profits over the health of its citizens and the quality of its natural resources.   This is, in part, why NRDC created the Community Fracking Defense Project—to help communities defend themselves when the state and federal governments are either powerless or unwilling to act.

But this is not enough.  Fracking is already widespread in many communities, and it is likely that many families whose water has been tested by DEP have not been given access to the full extent of contaminants that could be in their water.  This is why it is imperative that DEP release the full water testing results to all families whose water has been tested under suite codes 942, 943, or 946. 

Furthermore, a full and independent investigation of DEP’s inspection practices for fracking should be conducted to determine whether there is any additional negligent or criminal activity on the part of the agency.  Because when a family’s water supply has been contaminated, they shouldn’t get half-truths from their state environmental agency—they should get help.

About the Authors

Daniel Raichel

Staff Attorney, New York program

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