|Bradford County, PA|
Today Pennsylvania auditor general Eugene DePasquale told the press that the state’s rapid shale gas development outpaced the PA Department of Environmental Protection’s ability to oversee industry and protect water quality. The department, he said, was hampered in doing their jobs by understaffing, lack of modern technological resources, and inconsistent policies.
“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” said DePasquale.
The audit, covering 2009 – 2012, revealed that DEP failed to consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies. After reviewing a selection of 15 complaint files for confirmed water supply impact, auditors discovered that DEP issued just one order to a well operator to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply.
“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”
Other issues outlined in the audit:
DEP did a poor job in communicating its investigation results to citizens who registered complaints with the department. The agency was not always timely in meeting statutory timeframes for response to complaints it did receive.
DEP’s complaint tracking system, used to monitor all environmental complaints including those that are oil and gas related, was ineffective as it did not provide management with reliable information to effectively manage the program.
Auditors were unable to measure how quickly DEP conducted initial inspection of shale gas wells, a basic regulatory responsibility, because of a lack of reliable data. They discovered DEP uses a 25-year-old policy on the frequency of inspections, which has a “loop hole,” that only requires DEP to conduct inspections as it has the financial and human resources to do so.
DEP does not post to its website all statutorily required inspection information. When the data was tested for accuracy, the auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and that as many as 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting.
DEP does not use a manifest system for tracking shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal. Instead DEP relies upon a disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.
Auditors found accessing DEP data to be a challenge, as it is a myriad of confusing web links and jargon. The information that was presented on its decades-old eFACTS database was often incomplete—requiring a physical review of hard-copy files at distant offices to verify the actual information.
Hard-copy files were no better. “Through our audit we found that even conducting a review of hard-copy files is not a fool-proof guarantee, as we found some supporting paper files were missing and DEP was not able to produce them,” DePasquale said.
Overall, the audit lists eight findings and 29 recommendations. Among the recommendations, auditors encouraged DEP to:
- always issue an administrative order to a well operator who DEP has determined adversely impacted a water supply—even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;
- develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;
- hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;
- implement an inspection policy that outlines explicitly the requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
- create a true manifest system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;
- reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner.
“Shale gas development offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public’s trust, health, and well-being,” DePasquale said.
A full copy of the audit report is available here.