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The idea that “what you don’t know can’t hurt you” may sometimes work on a personal level—but it couldn’t be further from the truth for communities living on the frontlines of gas development. Yet the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) doesn’t seem to have any problem hiding information from the people who most need it.

News broke this week that the basic conclusion of a widely touted DEP study on air pollution near gas wells and facilities—that detected contaminants wouldn’t trigger health problems—was wrong. As revealed through court depositions, DEP didn’t calculate the health hazards of most of the chemicals it tested for and no one with expertise in toxicology or health reviewed results. This on top of the welll-documented fact that DEP’s equipment was calibrated so high that many contaminants appeared “undetected,” and that DEP clearly stated in the study report that the testing was too limited to tell whether chronic health impacts might occur. 

Such shoddy work certainly erodes public trust in a public agency. But the bigger problem is that missing information and lax oversight are linked to very real health and environmental impacts, as Earthworks recently documented in Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement. 

In the latest of our in-depth case studies associated with the report, we detail how the Carr family of Fayette County has been sickened for years by air pollution from a nearby compressor station—but neither DEP nor the operator have ever acknowledged it.

In recent years, most members of the Carr family (as well as several neighbors) have experienced fatigue, congestion, sore throats, coughs, headaches, and skin rashes. They’ve had bouts of muscle weakness, forgetfulness, nosebleeds, and tremors. And they’ve asked repeatedly for help when filing complaints about noise, odors, and health problems with DEP and the National Response Center, and when writing to the US Environmental Protection Agency.

Our research revealed that the Springhill 2 Compressor Station close to the Carrs had the highest carbon monoxide, benzene, and formaldehyde emissions of any industrial facility in Fayette County and was among the top five emitters of nitrogen oxide, volatile organic compounds, and sulfur dioxide. We also found that DEP was well aware that the compressor station would emit formaldehyde, a known carcinogen with many short-term health effects—but used unrelated data from a landfill to justify green-lighting the project.

DEP’s approach to the health impacts of the activities it permits can be summed up as—to paraphrase another well-known saying—“don’t seek and ye won’t find.” Tragically, the Carrs and many other gas and oil field residents nationwide are left to live and breathe the consequences. 

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