We’re now roughly five years into the surge on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas that has been trapped under shale formations, deep below the earth. The sharp rise in this fairly new type of drilling has overwhelmed states such as Pennsylvania and Ohio, formerly coal states where intensive drilling for fossil fuels hadn’t taken place for generations. One important consequence is that state regulators have been totally unprepared for the fracking boom, and they have been overwhelmed.
Pennsylvania is clearly ground zero for this phenominon. In 2010, at the peak of the boom, voters in the Keystone State elected a Republican governor, Tom Corbett, who kept his promise to slash government spending, even for environmental protection. (At the same time, Corbett’s Pennsylvania remained the only major drilling state without a severance tax on gas production, although the state did enact an “impact fee” that largely helps towns with problems like damaged roads.)
The results of these policies are pretty much what you would expect: Not only does Pennsylvania do a poor job of enforcing environmental violations by the big drillers (many of whom are major contributors to Corbett’s campaign fund), but its Department of Environmental Protection doesn’t even keep adequate records for the public to track who the wrongdoers are.
But taxpayers are fortunate to have the journalists of the Times-Tribune newspaper in Scranton to go through the records that the state doesn’t want you to see. They found that pollution in Pennsylvania is much worse than the Corbett administration is letting on:
State environmental regulators determined that oil and gas development damaged the water supplies for at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses between 2008 and the fall of 2012, according to a cache of nearly 1,000 letters and enforcement orders written by Department of Environmental Protection officials and obtained by The Sunday Times.
The determination letters are sent to water supply owners who ask state inspectors to investigate whether oil and gas drilling activities have polluted or diminished the flow of water to their wells.
So what’s going on?
But the determination letters released by the state reveal a widespread suspicion among water supply owners – farmers and summer residents, school board members and mini-mart operators, churches and a Wyoming County municipal water authority – that when their water seems soured, gas drilling operations might be to blame.
According to the state’s records, they are sometimes right and for a myriad of reasons.
More than half of the records of contaminated water supplies confirmed by the state involved gas, loosened by drilling, seeping into drinking water aquifers. Faulty natural gas wells channeled methane into the water supplies for 90 properties, the letters show. Three of those cases were tied to old wells, one of which caused an explosion at a home after gas entered through a floor drain and accumulated in a basement.
These numbers only confirm what folks who’ve spent time in the fracking belt of Pennsylvania know anecdotally. More farmers and other rural residents are complaining of headaches or stomach problems, more pets and livestock are falling ill, and some people are even able to light their kitchen tap water with a match.
All of this comes at a critical time, when neighboring states such as New York are deciding whether to allow fracking and when the federal government — in a classic case of closing the barn door after most of the animals have escaped — is finally looking at tougher regulations on this drilling technique. The information so haphazardly collected in Pennsylvania is important — because there should be a go-slow approach, or even a moratorium, until we learn to get it right. Natural gas — when extracted the right way, can indeed be a cleaner burning fuel than oil or coal.
But it’s not being extracted the right way, not now.
To read the full Times-Tribune report on fracking and water pollution, please go to: http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/sunday-times-review-of-dep-drilling-records-reveals-water-damage-murky-testing-methods-1.1491547
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