A report outlining the findings of a two-year grand jury investigation by the Pennsylvania attorney general’s office into the shale gas industry found “systemic failure” by two state agencies in overseeing fracking and protecting public health.
The report was sharply critical of the state Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Health for shortcomings in protecting the environment and the health of those living near drilling sites. It was released just weeks after two gas drilling companies were charged criminally by the grand jury with violating environmental laws.
“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” Attorney General Josh Shapiro said at a news conference last week.
“Government oversight of this activity was for many years poor and has only more recently shown signs of improvement. As a result, officials often did not do enough to properly protect the health, safety and welfare of the thousands of Pennsylvania citizens who were affected by this industry,” the 235-page report states.
While DEP regulation has improved during the administration of Gov. Tom Wolf, the report found that the agency was ill-prepared when the fracking boom arrived in Pennsylvania in about 2004 and under political pressure to allow drilling. The report also faults the Department of Health for not undertaking a comprehensive health study of the effects of fracking and of failing to adequately track reports of illness.
The report makes eight recommendations to improve oversight of the industry:
· Increase the setback of gas wells from 500 feet to 2,500 feet from homes and businesses, and more for schools and hospitals;
· Require companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used the drilling and fracking process;
· Better regulate gathering lines, which are used to transport gas from the well under high pressure;
· Require regulators to assess the sources of air pollution from a site cumulatively;
· Find safer ways to transport contaminated waste from fracking sites;
· Do a comprehensive health assessment for those living near well sites (a study is now being undertaken by the DOH in response to concerns from Western Pennsylvania residents about rare cancers occurring in children);
· Limit the ability of DEP employees to leave and immediately begin working in industry;
· Allow the attorney general’s office to have “original criminal jurisdiction” over gas companies.
DEP issued a response to the report that claims the attorney general’s office is wrong in claiming that the agency favored the gas industry and failed to have proper oversight. The Wolf administration also issued a statement saying that it has taken steps from the start to improve regulation, and blamed the vast majority of the issues spelled out in the report on the administration of previous Gov. Tom Corbett.
Marcellus Shale Coalition President David Spigelmyer also responded, saying “Environmental safety and public health is a priority for the industry.” He said the industry has had a long “proactive and collaborative approach” ensuring that regulations were followed, but it is not reflected in the report, which is being closely reviewed.
Environmental groups hailed the report and welcomed the recommendations. Mark Szybist, senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said, “The veil is finally being pulled back on the fracking industry’s careless, all too often illegal actions. The Attorney General’s report confirms that the state’s existing regulations don’t do enough to protect Pennsylvanians living near fracking sites or the land and water resources they depend on. It’s a travesty that Pennsylvanians have had to suffer the consequences of lax protections for so long. We look forward to reviewing the proposal for overdue changes that will help keep communities safe, boost the state’s oversight, and hold big polluters accountable – no matter their connections in the legislature.”
Shapiro urged the state legislature and DEP to work with his agency to adopt the recommendations, but it remains to be seen if there will be support for the changes.