Save now on regulators–and pay later for damage to water, air, and health

This week, New York State’s Comptroller issued a report examining the work of the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) in an era of budget cutbacks. The conclusion: “The combination of increased responsibilities, reduced staffing, and ongoing fiscal pressure raises questions regarding the DEC’s capacity to carry out its critical functions.” 

Specifically, DEC funding is down over 15 percent since 2008 and new responsibilities haven’t come with new staff and resources. DEC is being forced to do more with less—and this in a state with a de facto moratorium on shale gas development.  

As Earthworks documented in 2012, more than 75 percent of existing oil and gas wells in New York go uninspected each year and the rate of well inspections has dropped over time. So far, no new funds have been allocated to oversee future drilling—which the DEC Commissioner has previously said could require 200 new staff

Governor Cuomo could soon decide whether to forge ahead with unconventional fracking. He should look south of the border, to Pennsylvania, to see how inadequate oversight and enforcement translates into damaged water, air, and health. And he should listen to people like Jeannie Moten and her family, whose experiences are the focus of Earthworks’ latest in-depth case study associated with our report Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement.

The Moten family tragically exemplifies what happens when operators are given free rein. For years, the Motens and their neighbors in Avella, Washington County, have complained about degraded water and air quality and health symptoms like shortness of breath, burning eyes and throat, rashes, dizziness, and muscle cramps. Significant pollution events have occurred at nearby wells and operators have blatantly evaded permitting requirements and environmental controls.  

The environmental hazards caused by a cluster of wells in a county park uphill from the Motens got bad enough to bring attention from the US Environmental Protection Agency, which cited and fined the operator for violating the US Clean Air Act and the US Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act. For its part, the state regulator, the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), conducted some inspections and issued violations to operators—but has never limited drilling where problems occurred or provided any assistance to impacted residents. 

Just like everywhere else in Pennsylvania, drilling and pollution around the Motens continue to expand, even though DEP has 60 percent less funding and 20 percent fewer staff than a decade ago. 

The New York Comptroller’s report cites new DEC programs that have been implemented without new funding, two of which are shale development hazards-waiting-to-happen: water withdrawal permitting and transportation of crude oil by rail and barge. If drilling is added to the list, DEC will inevitably fail in its mission to protect the environment, and New Yorkers—just like Pennsylvanians—will pay a heavy price.