Washington, DC – The environmental and health impacts of gas development have been connected for the first time with a lack of state oversight on a site-by-site basis in a new report released by Earthworks. A year in the making, Blackout in the Gas Patch: How Pennsylvania Residents are Left in the Dark on Health and Enforcement documents and analyzes the permitting, oversight, and operational record of 135 wells and facilities in seven counties–and identifies the associated threats to water and air that are harming the health of nearby residents.
Blackout’s findings, based primarily on documents and data from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP)–are a clear indication that the state:
- Prioritizes development over enforcement: Steep DEP budget cuts and pro-fracking political leadership exemplified by Governor Corbett’s 2012 executive order mandating permitting on very short deadlines send a clear message. No similar executive action requires timely DEP inspections or pollution responses.
- Neglects oversight: Many of the wells examined for this report had never been inspected. Statewide, DEP left approximately 58,000 active wells (89%) uninspected in 2008; in 2013, DEP inspected thousands more wells—but the growth in drilling and production meant that more than 66,000 active wells (83%) weren’t inspected.
- Fails to consider known threats: Despite increasing density and proximity of oil and gas development to residences, DEP issues permits without considering the cumulative impacts on air and water quality.
- Undermines regulations: DEP doesn’t ensure that operators prevent degradation of special protection waterways or keep track of the location and safety of contaminated waste that is buried at well sites. DEP issues waivers without justification for practices that would otherwise violate the law.
- Prevents the public from getting information: Many documents that operators are required to file and DEP maintains are missing from files and not included in public databases. This makes it impossible for a directly affected resident to find out how the facility is performing, problems that have occurred, and whether their health is at risk.
“Legitimate, well-funded oversight should be a prerequisite for deciding whether to permit fracking, not an afterthought,” said Nadia Steinzor, the report’s lead author and Earthworks Eastern Program Coordinator. She continued: “Governor Corbett and DEP Secretary Abruzzo often say that the state has an exemplary regulatory program–but refuse to acknowledge that it’s not being implemented properly and that air, water, and health are being harmed as a result. DEP’s limited resources make it impossible to keep up with required paperwork, let alone enforce the law and hold operators accountable.”
“The Governor and DEP claim that gas and oil operations are safe and that they have everything under control. I live with it every day, and know that’s not true–and this report confirms it,” says Pam Judy of Carmichaels in Greene County. “I don't understand why DEP thinks it’s acceptable to let operators oversee themselves and make profits at the expense of my family’s health.”
The Judy family’s experiences are featured in Blackout in the Gas Patch and represent the first case study from the report. Six additional case studies will be released over the next few weeks. Each one examines operations, incidents, DEP oversight and enforcement, and air emissions and water quality concerns, including detailed timelines and maps of sites within a one-mile radius of selected households, as well as inspections and violations within a two-mile radius.
“There’s a national crisis in fracking oversight,” says Bruce Baizel, director of Earthworks’ Oil & Gas Accountability Project. “This report focuses on Pennsylvania, but it easily could have been written about Ohio, or the federal Bureau of Land Management, or Denton, Texas. Blackout illustrates why many residents across the United States have given up on the idea that regulators can manage the oil and gas boom, and are working so hard to stop fracking.”