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That Pennsylvania’s DEP stands for Department of Everything Permitted as opposed to Environmental Protection has long been a joke among gas drilling activists. But now the agency itself has brought the image a step closer to being reality.

According to a new directive, DEP inspectors must now secure pre-approval from the Secretary before being able to issue gas company violations or taking related actions. Leaked from the agency to the media, the memos are short and informal. But they pack a punch straight into the gut of efforts to protect public health and the environment from the mad rush to drill in the Marcellus Shale.

On a practical level and in combination with continued budget cuts to the agency the action spells additional paperwork, delays, and backlog. More broadly, it takes influence over enforcement away from trained civil servants working in the field and puts even more in the hands of the Secretary, a political appointee chosen by avowedly pro-drilling (and gas industry bankrolled) Governor Tom Corbett.

This power play certainly doesn t square with DEP Secretary Krancer’s recent pledge of faith in the agency’s boots on the ground inspectors to catch and punish violators and stated wish to complete 40 percent more Marcellus Shale inspections this year. In the past two (January 2008-August 2010), companies amassed over 1600 violations, and citations are continually required because of the industry’s penchant for corner-cutting at every turn, from shoddy well site construction to unsafe wastewater trucks. 

Unless the Secretary uses the new dictate to hold gas drillers accountable, the last laugh will be on him and the DEP but the result will not be at all funny for Pennsylvania’s communities.

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