The publicly funded and independent watchdog press Public Herald recently published the results of a three-year investigation in Pennsylvania that it says reveals “widespread and systemic impacts related to ‘fracking’.”
The Herald first filed a request for records of complaints to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) in 2011. The DEP declined to release the complaints, telling the Herald they were “confidential” and that they “didn’t want to cause alarm.” However, after persistent inquiry, the Herald reviewed 6,819 complaint cases and more than 50 file reviews, resulting in public availability of these cases via the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Complaint Map.
The Public Herald notes that citizen complaints are dispersed across counties where shale gas drilling occurred. The Public Herald saw complaints about drinking water, water supplies, gas migration, spill response, pollution, and leaking wells. In conjunction with Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, a published oil and gas engineering expert from Cornell University, the team analyzed the data. Ingraffea states:
It’s not like all the bad stuff is happening up in the northeast. Pennsylvania is pretty widespread, and what the data shows, quite clearly, is that impact has been systemic.
It’s not as if complaints about fracking are new. There have been many controversies surrounding the practice, even some that have led to bans and moratoriums. But what surprised the Public Herald team most was the total number of complaints–thousands more than they anticipated–and that they showed a strong relationship to unconventional shale gas development. As unconventional well numbers rose, complaints also went up during the same time period in correlation to the complaints. When compared to conventional gas drilling, the number of wells drilled was high, but complaints were low. While there could be other factors that affect these numbers, such DEP reporting records or other record-keeping issues, it is hard to ignore the Herald’s data.
…when Governor Tom Wolf took office in 2015, after campaigning on the promise to make fracking “safe,” the number of complaints exceeded the number of new shale gas wells for the first time since 2009.
Of the 4,108 cases categorized by DEP as “water supply” complaints, only 284 were determined by DEP as impacted by oil and gas operations. The other 94 percent are considered by the DEP to be unrelated to oil and gas.
The Herald also met with Dr. John Stolz of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh, who conducted independent water investigations of areas impacted by fracking. He reviewed the Herald’s data, and said:
Just looking at the raw numbers, you can say that unconventional wells, for whatever reason, generate more complaints per well. That’s something the DEP should be concerned about.
Some might wonder–what about the EPA’s study that declared fracking does not affect water? Interestingly enough, while some concluded that the EPA report meant that drinking water was safe, as in this Reuters article, others used the same report to discuss drinking water’s vulnerability. The Charleston Gazette said that, “While saying they found no ‘widespread, systematic impacts,’ EPA officials say in a new report that they found “above and below ground mechanisms” through which fracking activities “have the potential to impact drinking water resources.”
In a December 2016 report that followed, the EPA cited insufficient data for its conclusions, but still conceded that fracking can cause water contamination. However, the results of this EPA report were not as publicized as the June 2015 report clearing fracking of any cause for public concern.
For more information, read the entire report from the Public Herald. A second report that discusses DEP misconduct and negligence will be released soon by the Public Herald.