The short memory of Pennsylvania’s fracking regulators

The phrase “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” is often used when talking about war or major social conflicts. But last week, John Quigley, Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), seemed to be committing the same mistake.

In commenting to a reporter about water supply problems in the Woodlands area of Butler County, Quigley said,  “I don't think it would be a productive use of my time to review how the agency handled certain cases…I'm much more interested in ongoing instances of pollution of the waterways of the commonwealth.” 

Thing is, for Pennsylvania residents impacted by oil and gas pollution, DEP’s handling of cases can blur the line between past and present. Residents are often left in limbo for years, without a trustworthy source of drinking water, while DEP conducts investigations into complaints. 

If DEP concludes that oil and gas activities are to blame for the contamination of a private water supply—as it has done in 261 cases to date—residents have the legal right to a replacement water supply. That can take more time (and money) to secure, especially when operators contest DEP’s determinations. If DEP issues a “negative determination,” or investigations remain inconclusive, the clock of resolution to one’s water woes may never stop ticking. 

As Earthworks, partner organizations, the Pennsylvania Auditor General, and media reports have been saying for years, DEP’s approach to citizen complaints and water testing remains too limited to address the scope of the problem. In turn, many residents are left without answers to basic, critical questions. Is my water safe to drink? If it changed color, taste, and smell, or made my family sick, or according to independent testing contained contaminants, how can DEP be sure it’s OK? 

Yet while time stands still for many impacted residents, the industry marches on. In 2014, DEP issued more than 3,200 new permits for unconventional wells and over 1,370 were drilled statewide. Since much of the new activity is occuring in locations with longstanding water contamination concerns, it could potentially make ongoing problems even worse. In addition, new information is continually arising that should logically cause DEP to take a new look. 

For starters, there's this year’s publication of an in-depth scientific study on what happened to the aquifer under the Woodlands. DEP didn’t have this evidence when it concluded that nearby oil and gas operations weren’t to blame for changes in the water supplies of several families. So far, DEP staff have told Earthworks and its partners that it doesn’t have the resources or ability to revisit those cases, unless residents make totally new and different complaints.

Then there’s the four-year legal battle of Loren Kiskadden, who objected to DEP’s determination that a nearby well site and waste impoundment didn’t cause the serious pollution of his water. But it recently became clear that Range Resources knowingly withheld vital information on chemicals they used at the site. This includes radioactive tracers that appear to have made their way into Mr. Kiskadden’s water supply, and could therefore show a direct connection to drilling activities. Will such new evidence lead DEP to revisit what happened to Mr. Kiskadden and his neighbors?

In 2014, Secretary Quigley wrote that Earthworks’ Blackout in the Gas Patch was “essential reading.” That report documented the wide gap between DEP’s oversight of the oil and gas industry and increasing environmental and health problems statewide. We appreciated the compliment, and like many others dared to hope that Governor Tom Wolf and his administration would take steps to repair the horrible track record of his predecessor. 

Unless DEP is willing to help solve problems that have gone on (and on) for years, the current chapter in Pennsylvania’s history—in which the oil and gas industry's interests trump the public interest—will never be closed. Dealing with that fact would seem to be a very good use of Secretary Quigley’s time.