Pa. criticized over gas drilling pollution tests

November 22, 2012
Shale Play

PITTSBURGH (AP) - A state representative says the way Pennsylvania reports possible water pollution related to natural gas drilling is seriously flawed.

Depositions in a lawsuit show that the Department of Environmental Protection isn't releasing all water test results to homeowners during investigations of possible contamination from Marcellus Shale gas drilling, Rep. Jesse White said.

White, D-Allegheny, said the testimony of DEP staff in a lawsuit brought by Washington County homeowners revealed that the agency conducts water tests for 24 metals that can be related to gas drilling but the report given to homeowners shows only eight of them.

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"This isn't a technicality, and it isn't something which can be ignored," White said. "We are talking about people's health, safety and welfare."

DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said that the agency has been using the guidelines in question since 1991 and that they lead to sound determinations of when contamination from oil or gas drilling occurs. The water is also tested for pH, alkalinity, hardness, conductivity, total dissolved solids, total suspended solids, chloride and sulfate, he said.

"That the lab is capable of doing additional analysis for a particular investigation doesn't mean that our analysis was inadequate or incomplete," Sunday said.

Former DEP secretary John Hanger said that while the policy may have been developed in good faith years ago, it should be changed "immediately" to provide people with all the test information possible on water contamination, whether it's related to drilling or not.

Hanger said not releasing all the test results is a "mistake," adding that he isn't sure whether the policy was any different when he led the agency in 2009 and 2010.

"If this was a long-standing practice it should be changed today," Hanger said.

The Marcellus Shale lies under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia. The gas drilling procedure hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but has raised concerns about pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas. Contaminated wastewater from the process can leak from faulty well casings into aquifers, but it's often difficult to trace underground sources of pollution. Some studies also have shown air quality problems around gas wells, while others have indicated no problems.

Regulators contend that water and air pollution problems are rare, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research on those issues. The industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly.

Sunday said DEP's obligation "is not to regulate private water supplies but to make determinations as to whether drilling impacted a water supply."

He also noted that the Association of Public Health Laboratories reviewed the agency lab last year and found it to be well managed. He added that independent studies have shown that many water wells in the state contain some naturally occurring contamination and that the agency issued the largest civil penalty in the history of the state's oil and gas program last year for a contamination case.



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