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Because of such divergent opinions on issues like gas development, it can be useful to remember the saying “numbers don’t lie.” But there’s also the follow on, “but liars use numbers.” For now, I’ll give the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PADEP) the benefit of the doubt that they’re trying to catch up to the truth.

In a recent meeting with Earthworks and several partner organizations, agency representatives confirmed that gas development has caused many cases of water contamination. They seem to be going with the number 161, which an impressive investigation by the Scranton Times Tribune revealed in May.

This is actually a sign of progress, since after months of back-and-forth with the agency, former PADEP Secretary Michael Krancer told us in an April letter that DEP had determined shale gas drilling to have impacted the water supplies of only 25 households. In 2012, he even implied when testifying to the U.S. Congress that the number was zero.

For many residents of Pennsylvania and other gas and oil states, the stakes are clearly much higher than plain numbers suggest. Fouled water and air and weak industry oversight can quickly add up to health problems, lower quality of life, and diminished property values. And as long as state regulatory agencies keep adding drilling permits but not fines and enforcement, operators avoid accountability and the public pays the price.

Which is why it really does matter how, and how often, PADEP determines whether drilling is to blame for the water problems people experience. The agency needs to improve its tests, science, inspections, and investigations. Most important, they need to follow through with affirmative determinations to make sure that gas companies, in keeping with Pennsylvania law, provide a replacement source of safe drinking water to affected homeowners.

The recent change in stance at PADEP and the clear concern of many agency employees about the negative impacts of the state’s gas rush are very welcome. But there’s still a lot of work that must be done to make the equation come out in the public’s favor.

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