June 30, 2020

Pennsylvania’s attorney general releases scathing grand jury report on fracking industry, state regulators

By Frank Kummer, The Philadelphia Inquirer 

Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro on Thursday released a scathing grand jury report on the state’s Marcellus Shale natural gas industry that not only outlines health and safety issues caused by hydraulic fracturing, but also takes to task the chief agency in charge of enforcing regulations on the industry.

Shapiro, at a news conference Thursday to present the findings, cited what he called a revolving door relationship between the state’s Department of Environmental Protection and the industry, saying officials from the agency “repeatedly failed to exercise their duties and responsibilities.”

“Their relationship is too cozy,” Shapiro said, adding that DEP officials testifying to the grand jury were merely reciting industry talking points. He cited an instance where an energy company hired seven former employees from the same DEP office.

The grand jury report was the result of a two-year investigation that included 287 hours of testimony. It examined an industry that has drilled over 12,000 unconventional wells, as well as what the jurors called a “chemical cover-up” that allows companies to keep secret complex chemical compounds used in the fracking process.

Shapiro noted that the Marcellus Shale exploration industry stretches back 16 years, using hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, to access gas deep within shale pockets. He gave the Wolf administration credit for taking steps toward addressing longstanding problems, but said more needs to be done to close a “profound gap” between what is needed and “the realities facing Pennsylvanians in the shadows of fracking drills.”

Environmental groups and the DEP both say many of the issues stem from the administration of Gov. Tom Corbett, who was defeated by Wolf, who took office in 2015. However, issues surrounding the industry began as far back as the Rendell administration, when the natural gas industry really began to boom.

The DEP in its response to the grand jury report blamed the Corbett administration for faulty policies. An industry trade group, however, denied that its work poses a danger to public health.

David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement that the industry stresses environmental safety and public health, and that anyone who suggests otherwise “should better understand the facts.”

Shapiro cited testimony from residents who live near fracking sites that included a woman who said her family started getting sores all over and became sick to their stomachs, and had trouble breathing. Others spoke of black sludge or slime clogging well-water pumps that cost homeowners thousands of dollars to fix.

He cited more testimony of pets becoming violently ill, farmers seeing horses die, and livestock becoming infertile.

Shapiro also said the state Department of Health failed to investigate environmental complaints, collect data, and warn the public of danger.

“The bottom line is, this was a failure,” Shapiro said. “Regulators were supposed to prevent abuse by the big corporations ... but they didn’t.”

The Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project (EHP), a nonprofit public health organization, has identified 77 compounds emitted from 350 compressor stations and gas processing plants.

The grand jurors cited testimony by a senior toxicologist with the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry. The toxicologist told of visiting a homeowner who had been told by the DEP that his water was safe to drink. He went to the kitchen sink and filled a glass with what looked like “swamp water.”

“And he said, you are telling me that I can drink this?” the toxicologist testified. “He said, would you drink this or give it to your kids? I said, no, I wouldn’t.”

The grand jury made eight recommendations:

  • Expand no-drill zones for fracking farther away from homes than the current allowable 500 to 2,500 feet.
  • Let the public know which chemicals are being injected into the ground during the fracking process.
  • Regulate all pipelines, not just the big ones that are the focus of regulators.
  • Add up all the air pollution sources, including the releases of gas, both accidental and intentional, and make it public.
  • Transport the toxic waste generated by the operations more safely.
  • Empower the Department of Health to gather data and determine the best medical responses to problems, without waiting for people to report issues.
  • End the “revolving door” of DEP officials going to work for industry.
  • Use criminal laws to prosecute environmental crimes, which grand jurors said the DEP routinely failed to do.

Environmental groups throughout the state welcomed the grand jury’s report.

“For over a decade, the fracking industry has run roughshod over the people of Pennsylvania,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director of the Clean Air Council, in a statement. “The grand jury’s report reveals the tragic consequences of our state government’s hands-off approach to fracking. The gas industry has destroyed too many lives and livelihoods.”

PennFuture president Jacquelyn Bonomo said she hoped the recommendations “will be implemented in an effort to hold the failing fracked gas industry accountable.

The DEP issued a statement saying that it and Wolf share “the attorney general’s commitment to upholding Pennsylvania’s constitutional promise of clean air, pure water, and to protecting public health.“

A DEP statement says the Wolf administration “inherited a flawed ideological approach to regulation of unconventional oil and gas development that was forced on the Departments of Environmental Protection and Health by the Corbett administration, which promoted the rapid expansion of natural gas development and profit above these other priorities.”

It says the administration has taken steps to implement new environmental regulations, seek a “reasonable severance tax on natural gas” and enforcement actions including increased inspections of well sites, pipelines and other natural gas facilities. The DEP says it has issued more than $67.5 million in penalties to oil and gas companies.

Spigelmyer, of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, pointed out that many Pennsylvanians are employed in the industry.

“The tens of thousands of Pennsylvanians who work across the sector – building and union trades, professional engineers, environmental professionals, health and safety experts, as well as exploration and production companies that contract with hydraulic fracturing service providers, midstream companies and countless other Pennsylvania-based small, family-owned businesses – have every reason to place the highest value on regulatory compliance and transparency,” Spigelmyer said.