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Pa. auditor cites flaws in gas drilling regulation

| Tuesday, July 22, 2014, 11:02 a.m.

The state's official watchdog on Tuesday drilled Pennsylvania's protectors of natural resources for failing to crack down on wayward oil and gas companies and make the public aware of what it's doing to keep the state's water clean.

Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said the Department of Environmental Protection is plagued by a lack of resources but routinely failed to follow its policies for policing the burgeoning Marcellus shale-gas industry.

“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” DePasquale said in releasing a 158-page audit. “There is no question that DEP needs help, and soon, to protect clean water.”

DEP leaders deflected the findings, saying the critique of its work from 2009 through 2012 cited no instances in which the agency failed to protect public health, safety or the environment from fracking.

“Most of this audit reflects how our oil and gas program formerly operated, not how the program currently functions,” DEP Secretary Christopher Abruzzo said, noting that the time period in the report occurred before Act 13, the 2012 law that reformed the energy industry for the first time in three decades.

DEP agreed with most of 29 recommendations to correct problems — from monitoring drilling's environmental impact and responding to residents' complaints to upgrading computer systems. Many recommendations were implemented, Abruzzo said.

The agency improved its computerized complaint tracking system in 2011 and 2012, it said. A fee increase on fracking wells instituted in June should raise $4.7 million annually that can be put toward computers, inspections and hiring, Abruzzo noted.

DEP data show that since 2008, the agency determined oil and gas activity contaminated 209 private water supplies across the state. Drillers sunk more than 20,000 wells during that period, including 8,002 unconventional wells.

Thirteen of the impacted water supplies were in Western Pennsylvania, and more than half of those were in Indiana County.

A DEP spokeswoman said the agency plans to post information online by month's end. The information, however, will list only the county, municipality and date of notification. Not provided are the address, company involved, contaminants found or whether the issue was resolved.

DEP intends to eventually post letters to companies and specific orders for cases online, it said. Such documents can be reviewed at the agency's regional offices.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry trade group based in North Fayette, said getting accurate data to the public is important, but lauded the DEP's work.

“While our industry is squarely focused on continuous improvement, it's clear that Pennsylvania's regulatory regime is effectively meeting its objectives of protecting our environment and making certain that shale's broad benefits are fully realized,” spokesman Patrick Creighton said.

DePasquale criticized the DEP for often failing to follow protocol for addressing residents' complaints within 10 days. The agency's Pittsburgh office, for example, acted in a timely manner only 64 percent of the time, the audit found.

It noted that DEP workers consistently failed to issue official orders requiring well operators to restore or replace water supplies. Instead, DEP more often worked with operators to find solutions through voluntary compliance.

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said.

Abruzzo said the end result is the same.

Leaders with PennFuture, an environmental group, found the report's criticisms valid.

“It's clear (DEP) is not keeping up with its statutory role,” said John Norbeck, PennFuture's vice president and COO. “When our citizens have greater access to information about kennel inspections and restaurant inspections than they do natural gas well inspections, we have a problem.”

Jason Cato is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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