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Inspectors need no special approval to cite gas drillers

| Wednesday, May 4, 2011

State inspectors don't need executive approval to cite natural gas drillers for violations, a Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman said yesterday, clarifying the agency's policy after weeks of conflict with environmental groups.

Activists had lobbied against a protocol change the agency made in late March requiring inspectors to submit all violation notices to senior staff before issuing them to drillers.

But the inspectors never needed official approval to issue violations, DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said yesterday, contradicting previous statements and an internal e-mail that said they did.

"The inspectors continue to do what they have always done," Gresh said. "Inspectors are in the field, working to ensure ... DEP's regulations are being followed."

The controversy started in March. John Hines, executive deputy secretary for programs, sent an e-mail to senior staff and regional directors saying all notices "must get the approval" of three top department officials, including himself and Secretary Michael Krancer. Gresh confirmed that e-mail then, but said yesterday that state officials have been working to clarify the directive and that approval was never necessary.

Requiring approval would slow down critical problem-solving in the dangerous gas drilling industry, several environmentalists said yesterday. They lauded the decision to ensure inspectors have the same powers they always had. But several were confused by the department's contradictory statements.

"I think they have to establish the public confidence in their actions, and the enforcement policy and the other actions they've taken have undermined the public confidence," said Thomas Au, conservation chair of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter and co-chair of its water quality committee. "The backtracking does affect public confidence in your statements."

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