Pennsylvania environmental department fronts for frackers

Pennsylvania environmental department fronts for frackers by Betsey Piette on November 15, 2012, Workers World
For years, Pennsylvania families living near natural gas drilling activity have relied on the state’s Department of Environmental Protection to determine if hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, was impacting their well water. Little did they know that the DEP was systematically withholding information on potential contamination by issuing incomplete test results. This practice, dating back to 1991, was confirmed by the testimony of DEP employees Tara Upadhyay and John Carson in connection with a lawsuit brought by eight Washington County homeowners against Range Resources and 12 of its subcontractors. John Smith, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, described the DEP’s water contamination findings as “based on a system designed not to identify contamination.” (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Nov. 2) Under oath, Upadhyay, a DEP Bureau of Laboratories technical director, stated that the DEP’s lab identified volatile organic compounds, known components of fracking fluid, in one plaintiff’s water well. Exposure to these compounds has been linked to serious sinus, skin, neurological, liver and kidney problems. Yet the agency’s letter to the plaintiff dismissed these findings as laboratory error, claiming his water was not contaminated by drilling activity 3,000 feet from his home.

While water may be tested for 24 metals related to gas drilling under state guidelines, reports given to homeowners routinely identify only eight of them: barium, calcium, iron, magnesium, manganese, potassium, sodium and strontium. Depositions from the DEP whistle-blowers alleged that the presence of other heavy metals, including boron, chromium, cobalt, lithium and titanium, are tested for but deliberately not reported, even when levels violate safe drinking water standards. Testing results for the volatile organic compounds acetone, chloroform and t-butyl alcohol are also not reported. These compounds, as well as several of the omitted metals, are known fracking-related contaminants and carcinogens.

The tainted DEP reports have often been used to dismiss claims of Pennsylvanians who suspect their water and their family’s health are at risk from drilling. Complaints about water contamination in legal cases in Washington County, the Woodlands area of Butler County near Pittsburgh and Dimock in Susquehanna County were all dismissed because of DEP’s reports. This limited reporting clearly serves the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry’s claim that fracking is “perfectly safe.”

Adding insult to injury, DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said, “That the lab is capable of doing additional analysis for a particular investigation doesn’t mean that our analysis was inadequate or incomplete.” (Associated Press, Nov. 2) Sunday also threatened that “the DEP may not be able to invoke the presumption of liability to hold drillers [responsible]” if people don’t allow the gas companies to do pre-drill sampling. This sampling supposedly determines if contamination existed before drilling. ( Nov. 3) In his deposition, Carson, a DEP water quality specialist, stated that a special lab code, “942 Suite,” is used for Marcellus Shale water contamination complaints. Upadhyay confirmed that this code means “don’t test for or report on certain chemicals” found in fracking fluid, limiting the information going back to DEP field offices and to property owners. Suite codes 942 and 946 are also used by the DEP to omit or hide testing for drilling-related compounds. [Emphasis added]

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