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Pa. auditor cites flaws in gas drilling regulation

Jason Cato | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Pennsylvania’s regulatory agency in charge of monitoring the Marcellus shale industry and its impact on drinking water fell short in policing operators and keeping the public informed when problems arise, Auditor General Eugene DePasquale said Tuesday in scathing audit of the Department of Environmental Protection.

The DEP’s shortcomings result from a lack of resources, such as staff and modern computer systems, to a failure to follow existing department policies, DePasquale said.

“It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose,” he said. “There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”

“The audit report reflects how the oil and gas program formerly operated, not how the program currently functions,” DEP Secretary Christopher Abruzzo said in a written response to the 158-page report.

The audit makes eight findings and 29 recommendations for ways DEP can improve its operations — from monitoring drilling impacts on the environment and responding to complaints filed by residents to upgrading its outdated and ineffective computer systems.

DEP officials dismissed all findings but agreed with most recommendations. Many of them have been implemented since Gov. Corbett took office in 2011 or are being considered, Abruzzo noted.

“What matters here is the protection of our drinking water supplies,” DePasquale said. “Implementing these 29 recommendations, two of which were directed to the General Assembly, will go a long way now to protecting drinking water resources. When we look back five years from now, I believe everyone will all agree that our environment and our quality of life are better because of this audit.”

From 2009 through 2012, the time period examined in the audit, DEP workers consistently failed to issue official orders requiring well operators to restore or replace an adversely impacted water supply. The agency more often worked with operators to find a solution through voluntary compliance, the audit states.

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said.

DEP needs to exercise its “authority routinely, consistently and transparently,” he added. “Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”

The agency also did a poor job communicating investigation results to the public and did not always respond to complaints filed by residents within timeframes written into law.

DePasquale singled out the DEP’s Pittsburgh regional office, which he said responded to complaints within the 10-day statutory time period in 64 percent of cases. The Williamsport regional office had 100-percent compliance, the audit reported.

“Why would citizens in the Pittsburgh area have to wait longer for a response than people in the Williamsport area?” DePasquale asked.

Related: Feds aren’t inspecting 4 in 10 higher-risk wells

Auditors could not determine if complaints were entered into the agency’s tracking system. If they were entered, auditors could not tell how many complaints were received, which ones were investigated or how they were resolved, the report stated.

“While DEP did issue a new policy related to complaint handling, for most of our audit period the existing policy was woefully inadequate,” DePasquale said. “DEP must get that complaint system working.”

Another system for monitoring initial inspections of shale gas wells also lacked reliable data, the audit found. And the DEP uses a 25-year-old policy to determine how often inspections are conducted, which only requires the agency to conduct inspections “as it has the financial and human resources to do so,” the audit reported.

Online inspection information, which DEP is required to post by law, included errors in more than 25 percent of key data fields and inspectors’ comments were omitted from more than three-quarters of all reports posted, the audit said.

“It is unfathomable to us that for a basic responsibility of DEP — inspecting oil and gas facilities — little criteria exist for when those inspections should occur,” DePasquale said. “Until DEP updates its out-of-date inspection policies to include mandated inspections at specific critical drilling stages and during the life of the well, it will be nearly impossible to measure DEP’s performance in conducting this very basic responsibility to protect the environment.”

The agency also relies on a process for tracking well waste that foregoes manifests in favor of a process that includes self-reporting by well operators and no assurances that waste is properly disposed, the audit found.

The agency still used a decades-old eFACTS database to publicly report information that is difficult to navigate online as well as hard-copy files that are missing supporting paper documents, the audit found.

Among auditors’ recommendations to the DEP are:

–Issue administrative orders to well operators are determined to have adversely impacted a water supply — even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;

–Develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;

–Invest resources into replacing or upgrading its complaint management system;

–Hire additional inspectors;

–Implement an inspection policy that outlines requirements for timely and frequent inspections;

–Create a manifest system to track shale gas waste and ensure the waste data collected is verified and reliable;

–Reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner;

–Invest in information technology resources and develop an IT structure that will ensure its oil and gas program has a strong foundation for ongoing demands;

–Develop an all-electronic inspection process so that inspection information is accurate and timely to DEP and the public.