Legislator raises questions about DEP water testing

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State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, is asking for state and federal law enforcement agencies to investigate the state Department of Environmental Protection for “alleged misconduct and fraud” stemming from sworn testimony given by a DEP official that White said shows the agency produces incomplete water testing reports for homeowners who believe their water is contaminated.


White said his request stems from documents he received highlighting testimony of DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director Taru Upadhyay, who was deposed in a lawsuit filed on behalf of three Amwell Township families claiming Range Resources had contaminated groundwater with chemicals from a leaking drilling waste pit and a water impoundment area as part of its shale gas development operation on the Yeager farm on McAdams Road in the township.


The DEP said in a statement Friday that claims made by the plaintiff’s’ attorneys are “an effort to mislead and manipulate news coverage in an effort to litigate cases in the press instead of the courtroom.”


Range spokesman Matt Pitzarella said Friday that White’s request “has nothing to do with the health or safety” of families, but “everything to do with a legislator who is an outspoken critic” of the oil and gas industry.


In May, attorneys John and Kendra Smith of the Smith Butz law firm in Southpointe filed a lawsuit on behalf of Stacey, Harley and Paige Haney; Beth, John and Ashley Voyles; and Loren and Grace Kiskadden.


The three families, who live below the drilling site, claim they suffer from numerous health problems as a result of water contamination on their properties from Range’s activities at the Yeager site.


According to White, Upadhyay said in her testimony that the DEP was aware of water impacts from shale drilling at the site, but no notices of violation were filed.


White said the depositions show the DEP conducted water tests using an EPA-approved standard, but the DEP employee requesting the testing would use a specifically designed “suite code” that limits the information coming back from the DEP lab to the agency’s field officer and ultimately to the property owner.


He said if the code is applied, the report generated for the homeowner by DEP includes only eight of the 24 metals actually tested for – barium, calcium, iron, potassium, manganese, sodium and strontium – but would omit results from silver, aluminum, beryllium, cadmium, cobalt, chromium, copper, nickel, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, tin, titanium, vanadium, zinc and boron.


That concern was expressed in a letter to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer from Smith Butz regarding testing done by the DEP’s Oil and Gas Division for the Kiskaddens’ water.


“This is beyond outrageous,” White wrote. “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.”


But both Range Resources and DEP said the agency’s lab tests for chemicals commonly found in oil and gas drilling.


“They test for chemicals most likely to be associated with oil and gas development,” said Pitzarella.


DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said in an e-mail response to Smith’s letter that Smith “misrepresents the deposition transcripts by selective quotation and the lawyer either misunderstands how a laboratory functions or is intentionally misrepresenting how one does.


“Our laboratory has the capability of analyzing many, many compounds,” Sunday continued, noting that the agency’s lab runs “Marcellus-specific” tests based on its experience with Marcellus activities. “Not all of these analyses are necessary for an investigation into whether oil and gas impacted a water supply. Our investigators request certain compounds be screened for in an analysis, in particular, those associated with oil and gas activities.


“The results of such an analysis are subject to quality control and quality assurance. That the lab is capable of doing additional analysis for a particular investigation doesn’t mean that our analysis was inadequate or incomplete.


“The outrageous contention that DEP has ‘omitted key Marcellus Shale markers’ has not been substantiated by this attorney or the so-called expert witness, or any evidence whatsoever.”


Earlier this week, attorneys for Range Resources and 16 other defendants in the lawsuit filed by the three families asked the court to order the plaintiffs to release specific evidence regarding their alleged wrongdoings.


John Smith, the attorney representing the three families in the lawsuit, declined to comment Friday.


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