Auditor general critical of DEP performance

July 22, 2014
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A Marcellus well being drilled in Mt. Pleasant Township is shown in this file photo. Order a Print
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Auditor General Eugene DePasquale

Environmental groups and residents who have criticized the state Department of Environmental Protection are saying the performance audit of the DEP, released Tuesday, validates their concerns.

The 146-page audit, undertaken by Pennsylvania Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, sharply criticized the DEP’s handling of oil and gas development between 2009 and 2012. It outlined eight shortcomings and 29 recommendations for improvement.

“The general public has just become disillusioned with DEP and don’t feel like they can turn to them to get the type of help they need,” said Steve Hvozdovich, Marcellus Shale campaign coordinator for Clean Water Action.

Hvozdovich, who attended DePasquale’s news conference in Harrisburg Tuesday, said the DEP “has a lot of room to improve their policy” of monitoring water contamination.

According to the audit, the DEP does not consistently take enforcement actions against industry operators when water supplies are adversely affected, but instead prefers “voluntary compliance” from shale companies. The audit alleged only one of 15 “positive determinations” – or confirmed instances when water was adversely impacted by the industry – resulted in a DEP order being issued to compel the company to restore or replace water.

According to DEP Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo, additional orders were not necessary.

“DEP’s goals are to determine if oil and gas activities contaminated a water supply and to ensure restoration of that water supply if it is warranted,” Abruzzo said in a news release. “If an operator voluntarily replaces or restores an impacted water supply prior to DEP’s determination, negating the need for an order, our goals are still achieved.”

Abruzzo said several of the 15 cases were not related to drilling activities, and operators in question have been fined more than $848,000 to date.

In some cases, complaints are resolved by a settlement between the industry operator and complainant. State Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, said this “creates a serious public health risk.”

White said quiet settlements may work for the original complainant, but impacted water “becomes everybody’s problem,” and without a formal order from the DEP, there is little that can be done.

Patrick Grenter, director of Center for Coalfield Justice, said the lack of action is not a new problem.

“We’ve seen this practice in coal mining for years,” Grenter said. “Quite frequently, we find ourselves in the position of trying to push DEP to use all of the different resources they have to protect human health and the environment, and all too often, they are very reluctant to do that.”

Patrick Creighton, spokesman for Marcellus Shale Coalition, said state regulators are effectively protecting the environment while also allowing the benefits of shale development to be realized.

“Pennsylvania regulation is clear: in the rare event that oil or natural gas development impacts a water source, our members understand their obligation to remediate the impacted area and, if necessary, replace the impacted source,” Creighton said in an email. “In these rare cases, our members are committed to working with state regulators to swiftly address the matter and believe the current process is effective.”

Creighton said the MSC also disputes the audit’s finding that the DEP could not provide “reliable assurance” that all active gas wells have been inspected in a timely fashion.

Creighton said Pennsylvania’s inspection-to-well ratio is among the highest in the country. He also noted well permitting fees have allowed the DEP to more than double its oil and gas staff in recent years.

DEP said in a news release it conducted more than 1,000 well inspections in 2008, and by 2012, the number of inspections increased to 12,680 and remained steady through 2013.

According to the audit, DEP’s inspection policy is 25 years old. The policy requires the DEP to inspect active gas wells at least once a year, but according to the audit, DEP’s policy has a “loophole” that allows them to forgo the policy if necessary personnel and finances are not available.

Other findings relate to “poor” communication with complainants, an “inefficient and ineffective” complaint tracking system, the lack of a manifest system to track shale gas waste, and a lack of transparency and information on the DEP’s website.

DePasquale, in his letter to Gov. Tom Corbett, said the DEP “disagreed with all our audit findings,” but agreed with 22 of the auditor’s recommendations.

Also in his letter, DePasquale said the DEP is underfunded, understaffed and lacks the necessary infrastructure to monitor shale gas development.

“There are very dedicated hard-working people at DEP, but they are being hampered in doing their jobs by lack of resources – including staff and a modern information technology system – and inconsistent or failed implementation of department policies, among other things,” DePasquale said in a news release. “It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose. There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”

Emily Petsko joined the Observer-Reporter as a staff writer in June 2013. She graduated from Point Park University with a dual bachelor's degree in journalism and global cultural studies.

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