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Harrisburg, PA – Environmental groups welcomed Saturday’s news that the Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) proposed updates to Chapter 78 of the Oil and Gas Act were finally sent out for public comment. Though this was viewed as a positive step, the organizations emphasized the need to strengthen many of the vital regulations being proposed. 

“Although our organizations believe there is much that needs to be changed in the proposed regulations, it was time DEP submit its regulatory plans for public scrutiny and comment,” said Thomas Au, State Conservation Chair of the Sierra Club.

Prior to publication of the regulations several organizations submitted comments to the Technical Advisory Board (TAB) and the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) identifying areas that required continued focus, including those pertaining to the use of frack waste pits, identification and closure of abandoned wells, restoration or replacement of contaminated water supplies, and pre-drill water supply sampling requirements. 

One concern is the continued use of open pits to store wastewater and solid waste, as well as the practice of burying waste pits onsite when drilling operations cease. Mounting violations and defects in the construction and maintenance of pits lead to pollution events and burial can create a permanent toxic legacy. The organizations call on the DEP to require operators to use closed loop systems based on tanks, which would keep the waste away from soil, groundwater, and streams, and to prohibit the burial of waste at drilling sites. “The potential for contamination associated with using pits has led big name companies to already adopt operation policies that transition away from pits and standardize the use of closed loop systems,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus Shale Coordinator with Clean Water Action. “If industry believes using tanks is the best practice and are moving in that direction, then why not make their use mandatory?”

Oil and gas operators are not currently required to identify abandoned oil and gas wells in the vicinity of a new well, yet drilling through old wells can open up new pathways for chemicals and methane.  The proposed regulations don’t adequately address the problem. The groups are pushing for operators to be required to consult geological studies and plug orphaned and abandoned wells prior to drilling, to ensure the safety of water supplies. “By the DEP’s own admission, it would take 160 years to cap the 184,000 wells they’ve identified out of the half million believed to exist but the scale of the problem isn’t an excuse for inaction,” said Karen Feridun, Founder of Berks Gas Truth. “New drilling near old unstable wells is a recipe for disaster, yet the proposed rules provide no real safeguards.”

The groups support the DEP proposal to require operators to restore contaminated drinking water supplies to a quality that at minimum meets Safe Drinking Water Act standards. The natural gas industry has fought to have water restored to only pre-contamination conditions – even if it is not safe to drink. “We learned recently through DEP’s determination letters that natural gas drilling operations impacted 161 water supplies and we suspect this is just the tip of the iceberg. If industry destroys a once reliable drinking water source, we believe at minimum they should be responsible for providing homeowners with access to a safe drinking water supply,” said Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director, Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

“Many families report changes to their water quality after drilling begins, and it’s become evident that unless operators are required to provide them with a safe drinking water supply, they will continue to avoid any accountability for the health dangers they cause,” said Nadia Steinzor, Eastern Program Coordinator for Earthworks.

Last fall, DEP’s water testing practices came under scrutiny in private lawsuits. Currently, DEP leaves it up to the driller to decide when, where, and how to conduct water quality tests before drilling starts.  The groups are advocating for required comprehensive pre-drill testing of water supplies, with the testing done by truly independent laboratories.  The enforcement of all regulations is vital, and water test standards especially so in light of the recent Microbac Laboratory decertification for bad procedures.  The current practice has led to misleading information provided to homeowners and no assurance that their water will be protected,” said B. Arrindell, Director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.

Six public hearings are also scheduled in conjunction with the public comment period and the organizations encourage citizens to turn out and speak directly to the DEP in addition to submitting written comments on the proposed regulations. “The public comment portion is a crucial part of the regulatory process because it gives the people of Pennsylvania the opportunity to help transform draft rules into a final regulation that more fully protect public health and the environment,” said Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice managing attorney.

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