DEP owes complete disclosure to citizens

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The folks at the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection don’t like state Rep. Jesse White. We get it. White has been a frequent critic of the agency, particularly as it pertains to the DEP’s regulation, or lack thereof, of the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling industry.


But the agency came off as spiteful, childish and unresponsive to the public it is paid to serve when it refused to send a representative to Tuesday’s House Democratic Policy Committee hearing in Washington, for no other reason than the fact that White was the organizer of the session.


Had a DEP representative been at the hearing, he or she would have heard from folks who blame the fouling of their drinking water and various physical maladies on fracking that is taking place near their homes. Is gas drilling really the cause of these problems? Perhaps the DEP could have provided some answers, or at least agreed to investigate further.


One issue that has no doubt rubbed DEP officials the wrong way is White’s legislative efforts to force the agency to release all of its water-testing results to affected homeowners, rather than just those DEP deems pertinent and worthwhile.


Asked about that Tuesday in an interview with the Observer-Reporter, the DEP’s Katy Gresh said, “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.”


We think it would be better to let the homeowner, or a laboratory that homeowner might hire, make the decision on what is reliable and what is not. And what about these terms “quality-assured” and “quality-controlled”? Do they mean “edited” and, pardon the expression, “watered down”? The public has a right to wonder. The refusal to give up any and all test results raises questions, valid or not, about for whom the DEP is really working. Also, the fact that Gov. Tom Corbett raked in nearly $1.3 million in campaign contributions from the gas industry in his run for the governor’s office in 2010 suggests to some that he’s not especially interested in stringently regulating the Marcellus drillers.


The complaints aired at Tuesday’s hearing might well have been isolated incidents, but they were concerning, nonetheless.


The panel heard from neighbors Kimberly Staub and Chris Lauff, who have worries about future health problems after drilling occurred near their homes on Fort Cherry Road in Mt. Pleasant Township. Lauff brought with him a jar of muddy water produced by his well. He said the drilling company admitted it fouled his water supply, and he is now on a public water line, but that doesn’t resolve his concerns about health issues down the road. Complete DEP air and water testing on his property, with complete disclosure of the results, could either confirm his fears or perhaps give him some peace of mind.


Staub got in touch with DEP last fall after noticing an odor from a nearby drilling impoundment. She has made repeated follow-up calls to DEP regarding tests of the air quality on her farm but has yet to receive any evaluation from the agency. That’s simply unacceptable.


Also testifying before the committee was Judy Armstrong Stiles, who said her family had to move from their home in Bradford County because of health problems they blame on drinking water they believe was contaminated by a gas-drilling operation a few miles away.


“I just want to know where were those agencies that were supposed to protect us?” she asked.


We have editorialized often about the benefits brought to our area by the gas industry, especially the economic boost it provides. But we also believe that the safety of our environment and citizens must be paramount. That’s where the DEP comes in, or should come in.


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


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