Last week, I was copied on a letter sent by a local attorney to Michael Krancer, secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The letter contained some very explosive information that is extremely relevant to our region when it comes to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.
The facts in the letter are based on two depositions given under oath by two DEP employees, Bureau of Laboratories Technical Director Taru Upadhyay and Water Quality Specialist John Carson, in a lawsuit filed against the DEP and a natural gas drilling company by a Washington County resident over potential contamination of his well water from drilling activities.
The DEP employees testified they were aware of impacts on the resident’s water supply from drilling operations, but failed to file notices of any violations, which is a violation of the PA Oil and Gas Act.
But far more troubling was testimony about water quality testing results being screened and withheld from property owners by DEP using a computer code. Here’s how it works.
When a DEP field inspector comes to your property to test your water, he or she fills a sample container with water and then fills out a sample sheet, both of which are sent to the DEP laboratory. The field inspector is instructed to fill in what is known as a ‘Suite Code’ of 942 on the sample sheet. This is a really important code, as you will see.
The Federal EPA requires the DEP follow certain scientific standards in its testing—in this case, they use a standard known as 200.7. This means when the DEP tests for heavy metals in water, they must test for the presence and levels of 24 metals: Barium, Calcium, Iron, Potassium, Magnesium, Manganese, Sodium and Strontium, Silver, Aluminum, Beryllium, Cadium, Cobalt, Chromium, Copper, Nickel, Silicon, Lithium, Molybdenum, Tin, Titanium, Vandium, Zinc and Boron.
Some of these metals are known carcinogens and others are suspected carcinogens, which means their presence at certain levels can have very serious health risks. According to a 2009 study done in conjunction with the DEP on behalf of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry-funded advocacy group, many of those 24 metals have been found in flowback and produced water from drilling operations.
So when the DEP lab receives the water sample and the sample sheet, it tests for all 24 metals in the water. But—and this is the really important part—when the lab generates the report of the results, the ‘Suite Code 942’ entered into the computer triggers a filter which means the DEP field inspector only gets results for eight of the 24 metals tested for, because that’s all he told the lab he wanted to see. So even if your water tested off the charts for the other 16 metals, you would never know about it.
This raises two important questions. If the field inspector purposely chose not to see all the information generated from the lab, how can DEP possibly write a report stating whether your water has been impacted and is safe for you and your family to drink?
And what reason could the DEP have for withholding full results from both you and their own inspector? The DEP’s responses have been lame and evasive at best; they shouldn’t care whether the problems came from drilling or not—if they know your water is unsafe because they have the testing data in a lab somewhere, they must tell you. There is simply no legitimate excuse to withhold this information from homeowners.
Upon receiving this information, I released it to the public because I know many of my constituents have received water reports from the DEP with ‘Suite Code 942’ applied. Based on my own experiences with the DEP’s refusal to release testing data from Cornerstone Care health clinic a few months back, I simply do not trust them to do the right thing for the people I represent, and I’m not willing to give the DEP the benefit of the doubt when the health and safety of my constituents may be at risk. I called for an independent investigation of DEP by law enforcement to get to the bottom of the situation.
The story exploded in the press, being picked up by the New York Times, the Associated Press and news outlets all over the state. Predictably, I was attacked by the natural gas industry for my statements. Hateful and untrue things about me were being churned out on the Internet from industry-funded attack groups faster than I could read them.
Although predictable, the attacks were odd for one reason: Shouldn’t the natural gas industry want the DEP to be honest and open inits practices? Doesn’t the long-term future of the energy industry in the region, and the jobs that come with it, depend on the public trust in the DEP to do its job? If a company is doing everything right, why wouldn’t they want the people to know all the facts? And how are drilling company public relations people qualified to comment on internal procedures at the DEP?
This story is far from over; in fact, I believe it’s just getting started. I am committed to the safe, responsible and accountable development of Marcellus Shale, which requires honesty and transparency from both the industry and the DEP.
If we really want to build a new energy economy ‘the right way’, we should be willing to accept nothing less than full accountability from all parties involved.
After all we’ve gone through, I’d hate to see the ‘golden goose’ killed due to its own shortsightedness.
If you or anyone you know has received water-testing results from the DEP and want to know whether a Suite Code like 942, 943 or 946 was used to limit your results, please call my office at 724-746-3677.