It took a reporter’s tenacious investigation, a public outcry, and continual requests by Earthworks, our partners, and many others, but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has finally revealed the magic number. Late last week, the agency released a list of 248 cases of private water well contamination confirmed to be the result of oil and gas drilling since 2007.
Linked to the list are the letters that DEP has sent to homeowners explaining the reasons for the “positive determination.” That conclusion is the trigger for forcing operators to provide affected residents with replacement water, as required by Pennsylvania law.
Pat Klotz from Bradford County isn’t on the list. But as Earthworks’ latest case study reveals, there’s reason to think she should have been. Developed in conjunction with our in-depth report on DEP’s oversight of the gas and oil industry, Blackout in the Gas Patch, the case study details what's happened since Pat's water went bad.
Pat’s case met two of the major criteria to trigger an investigation by DEP. She has “before and after” water testing data showing changes since drilling began. The closest well site is less than 1,000 feet from her home, within the maximum distance that Pennsylvania law considers necessary to link drilling to changes in a private water supply.
In early 2012, DEP tested Pat’s water, but later told her the results weren’t clear and the agency needed more time to investigate. According to Pat, DEP has never followed up with her, re-tested her water, or provided an update.
DEP has taken a very positive step in releasing the list of confirmed cases of water contamination. But there’s big cause for concern that the list will grow quickly.
For starters, there are many residents across Pennsylvania who, just like Pat, are still waiting for resolution to investigations started months or years ago. And DEP continuously receives new complaints and must conduct new investigations.
In addition, DEP told reporters that the list of confirmed cases will be updated as staff go through paper files at regional offices, gathering determination letters and other information related to the agency’s own investigations.
Having done many file reviews myself, I feel the pain of the DEP staff searching for hard copy information. As both the Blackout report and a recent report by the PA Auditor General concluded, DEP’s information on water quality is inconsistent, incomplete, and hard to access. Also last week, Earthworks and partners sent a letter to DEP taking issue with claims that flaws in the agency’s programs have already been fixed and offering suggestions for action needed to ensure taht the agency is transparent and responsive to the public.
According to DEP’s list, Bradford had more cases of drilling-related water contamination than any other Pennsylvania county. It’s possible that Pat’s will one day be among them—and she will finally get the answers and help she deserves.