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Lawsuit raises questions over DEP's testing of water for drilling contaminants

| Thursday, Nov. 1, 2012, 7:08 p.m.

A Washington County lawsuit alleging that gas driller Range Resources contaminated three families' drinking water has raised questions about whether the Department of Environmental Protection is releasing incomplete test results, a state representative and attorney said Thursday.

The DEP defended its water testing. “The battery of analyses we order during investigations are thorough and give us the results we need to make sound determinations, which we fully stand behind,” spokesman Kevin Sunday said in a statement. “DEP takes very seriously instances where we do determine gas migration has occurred from drilling.”

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella termed as grandstanding the release of depositions in the case by the plaintiffs' law firm, Smith Butz of Canonsburg. The firm represents three Amwell families who claim they were sickened by chemicals used in gas drilling.

He also criticized state Rep. Jesse White, who is calling for a criminal investigation.

“This is simply the latest line of attacks by an outspoken critic of this industry. This is nothing to do with science or health,” Pitzarella said.

White demands the state Attorney General and the federal Environmental Protection Agency investigate the DEP “for alleged misconduct and fraud.”

“This is beyond outrageous,” White, D-Cecil, said in a statement. “Anyone who relied on the DEP for the truth about whether their water has been impacted by drilling activities has apparently been intentionally deprived of critical health and safety information by their own government.”

A litany of spills and leaks and the use of a potentially cancer-causing chemical to stop odors at the site contributed to air and water pollution, the three Amwell families claim. Range Resources and its contractors built a water impoundment above a dozen natural springs and the source of well water there, but made errors in its construction and repairs while using it as an unpermitted dump for well waste, lawsuits filed in Washington County Court said.

White and Smith Butz on Thursday released depositions from DEP Bureau of Laboratories Technical Director Taru Upadhyay taken in September. They said the depositions show the DEP conducted water tests using an EPA-approved standard, but the DEP employee asking for the tests coded the requests to limit the contaminant results the lab gave to the DEP field office.

The results omitted heavy metals and other elements, according to a letter from attorney Kendra Smith to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, that are considered carcinogens. That omission, she wrote, “denies a homeowner claiming water impacts from oil and gas drilling operations and their treating physicians of critical information.”

Sunday said Smith's letter “misrepresents the deposition transcripts by selective quotation and the lawyer either misunderstands how a laboratory functions or is intentionally misrepresenting how one does.”

The state Attorney General's office did not return a call for comment.

Bill Vidonic is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-380-5621 or bvidonic@tribweb.com.

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