DEP: Oil and gas operations damaged water supplies 209 times since end of ’07

Oil and gas operations have damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007, according to official determinations compiled by the Department of Environmental Protection that the agency is preparing to release for the first time.

State environmental regulators are planning to post the information on DEP’s website this month, but an early version of the spreadsheet was provided to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in response to an open records request.

The spreadsheet lists the 209 affected water supplies by county, municipality and the date regulators concluded that activities related to oil or gas extraction were to blame for contaminating or diminishing the flow to a water source.

The document does not disclose property owners’ names or addresses and it does not detail which companies that were deemed responsible for the damage, what caused the disruptions or what pollutants were found in the water.

DEP’s deputy secretary for oil and gas management, Scott Perry, said the agency intends to enhance the spreadsheet by adding links to the letters or orders related to each case at some point, which should reveal more information about how water was affected.

Environmental regulators are required by law to determine within 45 days of getting a drilling-related water complaint if oil and gas operations contaminated a water supply or reduced its flow. DEP reports its findings in letters to property owners. It also issues orders to companies to fix the damage in cases where oil and gas operations are found to be accountable or are presumed to be the cause because of the proximity between drilling activities and a disrupted groundwater source.

Those conclusions are public records.

After initially fighting news organizations’ requests for the determination letters and arguing it would be too difficult to find all of them in its files, DEP has increasingly provided access to the documents in the last year after courts required their release and as public interest in the information has grown.

When DEP posts the tally of damaged water supplies this month, it will mark the first time the agency has released its official accounting of drilling-related pollution and diminution cases on its website.

“This frequently requested information is being shared with the public in our continued effort to be as open and transparent as possible,” DEP spokeswoman Morgan Wagner wrote in an email. She said the department plans to update the list as more determinations are made.

The number of impacts is small relative to the number of new oil and gas wells drilled during the same time period – nearly 20,000, according to DEP records.

Patrick Creighton, a spokesman for the industry trade group the Marcellus Shale Coalition, said in a statement that “this data further demonstrates that the overwhelming majority of oil and natural gas wells in Pennsylvania – over 99 percent – have been developed without any impact on ground or well water.”

But people who have seen their water disrupted often describe the experience as uniquely unsettling.

Drilling-related water impacts

“There are 209 contamination cases since 2008, which is a lot, in my book, especially when you are talking about somebody’s drinking water supply,” said Steve Hvozdovich, the Marcellus Shale coordinator for the environmental group Clean Water Action.

The DEP spreadsheet reveals that oil and gas operations have affected water supplies in nearly every region where drilling occurs, from the shale gas sweet spots in northeastern Pennsylvania to the traditional oil and gas patch in the state’s northwest corner. DEP found that drilling activities damaged water supplies in Bradford County 48 times – the most of any county – followed by Susquehanna County (35 times), McKean County (24 times) and Forest County (17 times).

DEP’s southwest regional office issued the fewest water impact determinations of the three regional offices that oversee the industry. It found drilling activities caused water supply problems 13 times in six years: eight times in Indiana County, twice each in Washington and Westmoreland counties, and once in Fayette County.

The rate of problems has stayed flat in recent years following a surge in cases between 2008 and 2009 as shale gas extraction increased in the northeast region and methane trapped in shallow rock layers escaped into groundwater through flaws in some new wells there.

DEP found 18 cases of water supply impacts in 2008, 47 in 2009, 34 in 2010, 34 in 2011, 35 in 2012, 33 in 2013 and five through May of this year.

The Marcellus Shale Coalition spokesman said the organization believes it’s critical to make data such as this publicly available, “with appropriate context,” including the fact that Pennsylvania doesn’t have private well water construction standards and many water supplies are in poor condition or contain methane for reasons entirely unrelated to oil and gas extraction.

“Before our members begin well development activities, exhaustive baseline water sampling is conducted by certified third parties, which frequently extends beyond state requirements,” Mr. Creighton said, adding that the baseline testing gives homeowners important water quality and public health-related information.

Environmentalists applauded DEP for releasing the information, although they quickly added that it is only a first step.

Mr. Hvozdovich said he is “glad to see that DEP is taking some concrete steps to try to improve transparency on this issue, especially considering how disorganized they were and how secretive water impacts from natural gas drilling were in Pennsylvania.”

But he called the information in the spreadsheet “pretty woefully below what the public deserves to see” and encouraged DEP to add details such as what types of impacts oil and gas operations have caused to water sources, which companies were involved, whether shale gas drillers or operators of shallow, traditional wells were found responsible, how companies addressed the problems and whether they were fined.

Academic researchers said even the spare information in the document so far will still be useful for understanding the geographic distribution of drilling-related issues across the state. And it might encourage the public to ask for more readily available data.

Susan Brantley, a geosciences professor at Penn State University whose research examines water quality problems unrelated to oil and gas development as well as the ways drilling activities have affected groundwater, said it is clear to her from conversations with DEP staff that they also want to get more data online. “But it takes time and money and people power and I’m not sure they always have that,” she said.

“Even the most rudimentary spreadsheet going online and getting people to scrutinize it – that is a positive step,” she said. “We should encourage it. And the public should understand it so that they demand it.”

Laura Legere: First Published July 21, 2014 11:59 PM

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