Lawmaker challenges Pennsylvania DEP’s reporting of gas well water safety

Lawmaker challenges Pennsylvania DEP’s reporting of gas well water safety by Don Hopey, November 2, 2012, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection produces incomplete lab reports and uses them to dismiss complaints that Marcellus Shale gas development operations have contaminated residential water supplies and made people sick, according to court documents. In response, state Rep. Jesse White, D-Cecil, Thursday called on state and federal agencies to investigate the DEP for “alleged misconduct and fraud” revealed by sworn depositions in a civil case currently in Washington County Common Pleas Court. …

The DEP responded in an email, noting its water testing lab received a “glowing” peer review last year from the Association of Public Health Laboratories, and saying, “Jesse White is ideologically opposed to responsible drilling regulations which is evidenced by, among other things, his vote against Act 13,” a state law that regulates Marcellus Shale drilling and gas production. “The battery of analyses we order during investigations are thorough and give us the results we need to make sound determinations, which we fully stand behind,” Kevin Sunday, a department spokesman, said in the email. “DEP takes very seriously instances where we do determine gas migration has occurred from drilling.”

Mr. White’s call for an investigation came after the release Wednesday of two depositions of DEP employees in the Washington County case. One of the employees is Taru Upadhyay, division director of DEP’s Bureau of Laboratories. She testified that DEP reports to property owners didn’t contain a full array of contaminants found by the lab’s testing. When homeowners suspect that their water has been contaminated, they can call the DEP for a water analysis. The department submits a sample to its Harrisburg laboratory, which screens it for metals, organic material and volatile chemical compounds. Mr. White said there’s no excuse for withholding some of the water test results because they could hold the key to residents’ water supply problems. “If these allegations are true, there needs to be a thorough and objective investigation to determine if someone belongs in a jail cell,” he said. In her deposition, Ms. Upadhyay said the DEP’s laboratory tests water samples for a full battery of contaminants but — at the direction of the department’s Office of Oil and Gas Management — limits the number of contaminants reported to the property owner. The omissions include heavy metals, including lithium, cobalt, chromium, boron and titanium, some of which are human carcinogens or toxics, as well as volatile organic compounds that are associated with hydraulic fracturing fluids. Those metals, found in the 450-million-year-old shale layer a mile or more underneath most of Pennsylvania, are “marker” Marcellus contaminants that should be part of any well water testing, said John Smith, an attorney with Smith Butz, a firm representing eight people in the Washington County case against Range Resources and 12 of its subcontractors. The plaintiffs claim they face serious health problems and increased cancer risk due to exposure to toxic chemicals in their air and well water near Range’s Yeager drill site in Amwell.

Mr. Smith said finding the metals and certain volatile organic compounds in the water test results could link contamination of groundwater to gas well drilling and fracking operations. He said another concern is that incomplete contaminant reporting could affect the health of residents and the ability of their doctors to properly diagnose the cause of any illnesses. “Despite these significant health consequences, the DEP purposely never considered information concerning all of these metals in each of the plaintiffs’ water supplies before making any of its determinations and purposely failed to alert the plaintiffs to their presence,” Mr. Smith said in a court filing Wednesday. Mr. Smith’s filing also said the DEP’s water contamination findings were “based on a system designed not to identify contamination.”

Ms. Upadhyay’s statements are contained in a 336-page transcript of her deposition taken Sept. 26 for an Environmental Hearing Board case. The case, brought by Loren Kiskadden of Amwell, alleges that DEP’s investigation of his well-contamination complaint, which did not find contamination, was inaccurate and incomplete. Responding to deposition questions under oath, Ms. Upadhyay testified that the DEP’s lab found aluminum, copper, silicon, lithium, molybdenum, zinc, nickel, cobalt, titanium and boron in Mr. Kiskadden’s drinking water, but didn’t report those contaminants to him or the department’s water quality specialist on the case. She also said the lab found volatile organic compounds, including acetone, chloroform and T-butyl alcohol — industry-recognized components of fracking fluid — in Mr. Kiskadden’s water. But the DEP, in its contamination determination letter to Mr. Kiskadden, dismissed those findings as laboratory error and concluded his water wasn’t contaminated by gas drilling operations 3,000 feet from his home.

The deposition of Ms. Upadhyay and one of John Carson, a DEP water quality specialist, were filed as supporting documents in the related Washington County civil case. In that lawsuit, four homeowners, including Mr. Kiskadden, who live near the Yeager well site allege that their private water supplies were contaminated and that they suffered a variety of health problems. They want compensatory and punitive damages. Range Resources has denied responsibility for any contamination from its operations, which included three wells, a 13 million gallon impoundment and a drill cuttings pit.

Mr. Carson said in his deposition that the special lab code for Marcellus Shale water contamination complaints — the 942 Suite Code, which Mr. White, the state legislator, says screens out results “for substances known to be hazardous and associated with Marcellus Shale drilling — was used statewide.

Thursday, Kendra Smith, another Smith Butz attorney, sent a 10-page letter to DEP Secretary Michael Krancer, asking for a review of the test reporting. Mr. Sunday, the DEP spokesman, said the department’s laboratory has the capability of analyzing a multitude of compounds but not all are necessary for determining whether oil and gas operations caused water supply contamination. “Our investigators request certain compounds be screened for in an analysis, in particular, those associated with oil and gas activities,” he said. “The results of such an analysis are subject to quality control and quality assurance. That the lab is capable of doing additional analysis for a particular investigation doesn’t mean that our analysis was inadequate or incomplete.” Mr. Sunday also wrote that Mr. Smith’s contention that DEP lab reports intentionally omit key heavy metal contaminants that are Marcellus Shale indicators is an “outrageous allegation.” But Mr. Smith pointed out in his court filing that scientific studies, including one by the Marcellus Shale Coalition in 2009, have routinely identified the heavy metals found in Mr. Kiskadden’s water as contaminants in oil and gas flow back and produced water. [Emphasis added]

[Refer also to: DEP alters policy on foul-water notifications ]

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