Fines against drillers in Pa. down 70 percent
By Timothy Puko
Published: Wednesday, May 23, 2012, 2:54 p.m.
Updated: Thursday, May 24, 2012
DEP says there were problems with data on its website Note: The Department of Environmental Protection said today that data on its website that was used as the basis for this story includes some duplicate information, including amounts of fines imposed during 2010. DEP now says fines assessed of drillers in 2010 were $2,885,306, compared with $2,573,998 in 2011. Therefore, fines did not drop as dramatically as the data appeared to indicate. The numbers came from the compliance reports the agency publishes in spreadsheets on its website, but those reports included many duplicate entries and omitted other fines, said Kevin Sunday, a department spokesman in Harrisburg.
Fines against Pennsylvania's shale gas drillers last year dropped by almost $6 million, or about 70 percent, from 2010 even though the number of violations remained about the same, according to state environmental regulators.
Department of Environmental Protection well inspectors cited 1,159 environmental violations in 2011, 59 fewer than in 2010, according to department workload reports. That's a decrease of 5 percent during a time when fines and other punitive actions dropped 37 percent, according to DEP.
Fines dropped to $2.47 million in 2011 from $8.27 million the year before. The data have some questioning whether the DEP is taking it easy when levying penalties on drilling violations, but state and industry officials said the numbers aren't that simple to analyze.
Fines were levied in 6 percent of violations, according to Clean Water Action, a statewide environmental group that included many of the same numbers in a report it released yesterday. Giving "a warning ticket" to most rule-breakers undermines any hope the state has of keeping companies in line, said Myron Arnowitt, the group's state director.
"If somebody robs the bank and puts the public in danger, police don't just pull the guy over and say, 'Give the money back and say you're sorry, and everything will be resolved,'" said Steve Hvozdovich, a Clean Water Action policy associate who compiled DEP's numbers and reviewed cases for the report. "I feel like that's sometimes the way these companies are treated ... as long as they clean up the mess."
That oversimplifies the issues, said Kevin Sunday, a spokesman at DEP headquarters in Harrisburg. Each violation doesn't necessarily have its own fine or punishment. The department often issues a single judgment or punishment that resolves dozens of violations, just as a criminal might receive one prison sentence for a crime that included several legal charges, he said.
State lawmakers gave the department greater powers under oil and gas law reforms passed this year, Sunday said. Maximum civil penalties have tripled and the department can revoke permits for drillers with a history of problems, which should act as deterrents, he said.
"The end goal is compliance, and we're getting closer to that," he said. "Civil penalties are one way we get there. You can't look at just the fines. You have to look at the performance we're getting out of operators, and I think we're getting an improved performance."
Industry officials also questioned Clean Water Action's conclusions. Hvozdovich isn't a scientist and trying to correlate violations and fines isn't a substantive way to judge the performance of state regulators, said Matt Pitzarella, Cecil-based spokesman for the Texas company Range Resources.
"The goal should be to protect the environment and/or communities while enhancing the economy and enriching lives -- not issuing fines," Pitzarella said.
Sunday and industry officials pointed to a study released last week that concluded shale drillers had improved safety practices across Pennsylvania's Marcellus shale fields. The rate of environmental violations in the first eight months of 2011 was half the rate for all of 2008, the year the drilling boom started, according to the study from the University at Buffalo's Shale Resources and Society Institute.
Two of that study's three authors have written studies that the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, commissioned. One of the study's reviewers, an energy expert at the Environmental Defense Fund, wrote that some of its conclusions "are questionable."
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