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State fines of gas drilling firms plunge, revised data show

| Thursday, May 24, 2012, 8:05 p.m.

State officials on Thursday corrected data they provide about gas drilling fines, saying fines dropped by $300,000 from 2010 to 2011, a fraction of the difference reflected on a state website that was the basis for reports a day earlier.

Department of Environmental Protection compliance reports online show more than $8 million in fines for 2010, but many of the entries in that database are duplicated, said Kevin Sunday, department spokesman in Harrisburg. The state fined shale gas drilling companies $2.9 million for violations in 2010. It fined them $2.6 million in 2011, Sunday said.

"In terms of the data, that's a huge issue," said Steve Hvozdovich, a Pittsburgh-based policy associate who compiled the numbers from the database for a report by the environmental group Clean Water Action.

"The purpose of this (DEP) website, one, should be transparency, which it clearly is doing," Hvozdovich said. "But, two, it should also be done in such a way that the general public can understand it. If they can't, then transparency is essentially useless."

Department officials clarified the numbers a day after separate reports in the Tribune-Review and from Clean Water Action -- both using numbers from a state database -- showed a dramatic decline in fines despite a much smaller decrease in violations.

It took time for agency officials to spot the discrepancy, Sunday said. On Wednesday, he said he would "stand behind the information contained in our compliance report."

"We're trying to operate as transparently as possible," Sunday said, stressing the agency's effort to put more information online. "In general, a lot of what we do is of a highly technical nature, and some of that requires interpretation. We're willing to provide that when needed."

DEP has come under fire for the accuracy of its online well counts and how it communicates with landowners and public officials about spills and accidents.

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