Confirmed: State regulators in Pa. in the tank for Big Oil and Gas


Every day, new evidence emerges that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas or oil is not the environmentally safe procedure that industry officials keep insisting that it is. Whether it’s swarms of earthquakes in fracking zones, the massive amounts of drinkable water that is wasted in the drilling process, or the toxic air invading rural communities, the huge risks of the fracking process outweigh the modest benefits of a slightly cleaner burning fossil fuel.

How does Big Oil and Gas get away with it? The answer is pretty simple: When problems with fracking emerge, as they so often do, state regulators are — for the most part — determined to look the other way. Maybe it’s the hundreds of thousands of dollars in campaign contributions raked in by their politician bosses, or maybe it’s the misguided belief that fracking jobs are some kind of golden goose, or maybe it’s the promise of getting a high-paying private sector job when they leave government. But throughout the five years that fracking has boomed in America, regulators have tended to overlook the problems that are so obvious to environmentalists, to scientists, and to everyday citizens.

Yet even by those already low standards, a report that emerged this week out of Pennsylvania is inexcusable:

PHILADELPHIA — Pennsylvania officials reported incomplete test results that omitted data on some toxic metals that were found in drinking water taken from a private well near a natural gas drilling site, according to legal documents released this week.

The documents were part of a lawsuit claiming that natural gas extraction through a method known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, and storage of the resulting wastewater at a site in southwestern Pennsylvania has contaminated drinking water and sickened seven plaintiffs who live nearby.

In a deposition, a scientist for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection testified that her laboratory tested for a range of metals but reported results for only some of them because the department’s oil and gas division had not requested results from the full range of tests.

The scientist, Taru Upadhyay, the technical director of the department’s Bureau of Laboratories, said the metals found in the water sample but not reported to either the oil and gas division or to the homeowner who requested the tests, included copper, nickel, zinc and titanium, all of which may damage the health of people exposed to them, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

It’s hard to see how this was anything but an intentional oversight by the Pennsylvania regulators; the poisons that lab workers were ordered not to test for are part of routine health safety checks by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. And this took place in a community that has been dealing with severe public health consequences from the fracking boom. As the Times article notes, seven people who live within a mile of a Range Resources fracking rig and wastewater pond in Amwell Township are now suing, claiming to have found the presence of toluene, benzene and arsenic in their bodies.

Next year, there’s an election in Pennsylvania, and polls are showing that the incumbent Republican governor Tom Corbett, who’s been in the back pocket of the major oil and gas companies for the last three years, is in serious political trouble. Most of the candidates in a large field of Democrats who are angling to replace Corbett have vowed to take a much tougher stance on the fracking industry, and that is a change that cannot come quickly enough. There also need  to be new and better rules to govern fracking, so if drilling is done, it will be done more safely. But that’s not the problem right now. They can’t even enforce the fracking rules already on the books.

To read the entire New York Times report on shoddy regulations in Pennsylvania, please read:

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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