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Pennsylvanians whose health and quality of life have been disrupted by gas development certainly have a personal “dog in the fight” for better industry oversight and accountability. But they might not have expected help in that quest from the state’s fiscal watchdog—who yesterday strongly criticized the ability of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to track problems and respond to the public. 

In a report on DEP’s protection of water quality in the face of shale gas drilling, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale detailed serious lapses in how DEP works with drillers who have caused water pollution; communicates investigation results to residents; registers citizen complaints; conducts inspections of gas sites; and tracks waste. 

DePasquale took particular issue with DEP’s willingness to let gas operators work out agreements with affected homeowners, rather than issuing legally mandated orders to provide clean drinking water. DePasquale said that DEP was risking its very authority as an industry regulator, since “without fear of a bite, DEP’s bark will do little to ensure compliance.” In other words, self-policing cannot replace real enforcement.

DePasquale’s office spent more than a year conducting interviews and reviewing DEP records. Apparently this was a frustrating process due to weak, haphazard documentation—leading to the conclusion that there are “so many inconsistencies with DEP's data that we ultimately determined it to be 'not sufficiently reliable.'”

Earthworks and its partners welcomed the report’s release, noting that its findings reflect and validate concerns long raised by residents across Pennsylvania. For 18 months, environmental and citizen groups have been raising questions and demanding answers from DEP about its water testing protocols and limited response to homeowners whose water quality has changed since drilling started. 

Also yesterday, the same reporter who first investigated how DEP tracks drilling-related water contamination revealed that the number of officially acknowledged cases now stands at 209—nearly 50 more than the last time DEP talked about the matter. This time around, DEP says it plans to voluntarily issue information related to those cases.

DEP wasn’t nearly as accepting of the Auditor General’s report. In a 25-page rebuttal, DEP agreed with findings and recommendations related to data management, public information, and updating of agency protocols—but flatly rejected the idea that DEP is too understaffed and underfunded to properly oversee a surging gas industry.

One of these days, DEP might take the proverbial “first step to recovery” by acknowledging it has a problem. Only then will it be possible to convince policymakers that, in DePasquale’s words, “DEP needs assistance.” And once that happens, Pennsylvanians might also have a fighting chance to get the response, support, and protection they deserve.

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