Residents testify to lack of DEP oversight at policy hearing

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Five Pennsylvania residents, including two from Mt. Pleasant Township in Washington County, testified before a House Democratic Policy Committee hearing Tuesday that the state Department of Environmental Protection has failed to provide the necessary oversight on natural gas drilling.


Neighbors Kimberly Staub and Chris Lauff said since natural gas drilling took place near their homes on Fort Cherry Road, they are left wondering if they will suffer health problems someday as a result of the activity.


Lauff set a jar of muddy water on the table in front of him to demonstrate the condition of his well water. The natural gas company did admit responsibility for his water loss, and Lauff has since connected to a public water supply.


But Lauff said the DEP fails to abide by its own Best Management Practices when it comes to dealing with the drilling industry.


No one from the DEP attended the hearing, which state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, termed “a great disappointment.” White has introduced House Bill 268 that would require full disclosure of the department’s test results.


DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said the DEP has responded previously to White on that subject.


“It would be irresponsible for DEP to provide homeowners with raw data that has not been quality-assured and quality-controlled. Raw data is, quite simply, unreliable and not valid in the eyes of any laboratory, public or private,” she said.


At the end of the 2 1/2-hour hearing, White said, “what we heard from everyone today was not an attack on drilling. I’m sure we realize there are economic benefits to drilling. I think what we’re hearing more than anything is that the DEP needs to step up and be the enforcement agency that homeowners and even the industry wants them to be,” he said.


Staub, who contacted the DEP when she noticed an odor from an impoundment last fall, has yet to receive any case evaluation about her farm and its air quality despite repeated calls to the DEP.


Lauff, who said a toxicologist told them the only treatment for his exposure to chemicals is avoiding them, said his family has lost the enjoyment of their home. He supports the need for America to become energy independent if it is done safely and responsibly.


“The question we should be asking ourselves is not who is in favor of or who is against natural gas drilling, but rather, is there proper oversight to ensure the healthy and safety of the residents of our commonwealth by our state officials and government who are tasked to do so?” he asked.


Rep. Kevin Boyle, Philadelphia County, said, “I apologize for DEP. As Pennsylvania citizens, you deserve better.”


Judy Armstrong Stiles, who wore a white cotton glove on her right hand because of skin problems she believes are associated with natural gas drilling, said her family was forced to move from their Bradford County home.


She told the panel that medical officials determined they had heavy metal poisoning, which she attributes to numerous chemicals in their drinking water from a gas well pad three miles away.


Her voice cracked when she explained her husband ended his life last year after being unable to deal with pain from intestinal cancer.


“I just want to know where were those agencies that were supposed to protect us?” she asked. “We paid thousands of dollars we couldn’t afford to test our water. I think that was DEP’s job.”


Earthworks eastern program coordinator Nadia Steinzor said DEP’s decision to provide only partial water test results to homeowners is a significant lapse in responsibility and transparency.


She called on the state legislature and DEP to make a number of changes, including providing testing prior to drilling activity and making that information publicly available, expanding parameters on air and water testing, and collecting comprehensive data on complaints.


Melissa Troutman, Mountain Watershed Association’s outreach coordinator, said the policy for oil and gas extraction in Pennsylvania appears to be “permit first, test later.” No new permits should be awarded until a thorough investigation of the department’s policies and procedures is conducted, she said.


Also speaking were Steve Hvozdovich, policy associate with Clean Water Action, and Erika Staaf, a clean water advocate for PennEnvironment.


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