WILKES-BARRE — State Auditor General Eugene DePasquale is outspoken in his belief that when it comes to dealing with water contamination issues, the state Department of Environmental Protection needs to get its act together.
During a public hearing on tracking and reporting natural gas drilling-related health complaints held in front of the state Senate Democratic Policy Committee at King’s College on Wednesday, DePasquale criticized DEP for what he said was its inability to efficiently respond to residents’ reporting of potential impacts from natural gas development.
Asked to reply to DePasquale’s allegations, DEP Deputy Press Secretary Morgan Wagner said the issues have already been dealt with.
“It’s disappointing that the auditor general continues to focus on problems from nearly five years ago that have been already been addressed,” Wagner stated. “For example, as the oil and gas industry grew over the past few years, DEP’s Bureau of Information Technology made numerous adjustments to our complaint tracking system in July 2011 and July 2012 to allow for more precise tracking of information related to water supply complaints.”
In July, DePasquale released the results of an audit, which he began as soon as he took office in January 2013. It showed the state agency was unprepared to handle the boom in Marcellus Shale drilling, which started in 2007 and began to take off in 2008.
As the number of natural gas wells increased, so did concerns about the contamination of drinking well water due to the process of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.”
“When we started the audit, we were basically told there was no well contamination. It did not happen,” DePasquale told the committee on Wednesday.
But, he said, on the day he held a press conference to announce the audit, it was revealed it had happened more than 200 times — and since then, more than that.
In fairness to DEP, there was a lot of water contamination that wasn’t revealed, DePasquale said. Pennsylvania does not have inspection requirements for water wells. The contamination could have been there for 20 or 30 years and never showed up because the wells weren’t inspected, according to DePasquale.
He emphasized the importance of tracking well contamination. We live in a global community, he said, and if a well is impacted, it could also have an impact on a neighbor, a community, or even a watershed.
DePasquale said his auditors discovered accessing DEP data was difficult because they found it a myriad of “confusing web links and jargon.” They had so much trouble with the data that DePasquale’s office had to write a citizens’ guide about water contamination.
One way or another, DEP is going to need more staff, and it’s going to need to improve its information technologies program, DePasquale said.
As a way to fund necessary resources for DEP and other agencies, state lawmakers have been debating over levying a natural gas extraction tax, which would be paid by drilling companies at the wellhead based on the amount of gas produced.
DePasquale said it’s appropriate to have a debate over an extraction tax — but on the subject of well contamination, there should be no debate.
Wagner defended DEP, saying the agency responds to all water supply complaints within 48 hours, and most times even sooner.
“The Auditor General’s Audit focused on the period 2009 through 2012, and importantly, found no instances where DEP failed to protect public health, safety or the environment with respect to unconventional gas drilling activities,” she stated in an email.
“It’s also important to recognize that Act 13 of 2012, the first significant amendment to Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws in over 30 years, was enacted during the audit period, introducing sweeping changes to DEP’s regulatory authority over the unconventional natural gas industry.”
DePasquale stressed on Wednesday that he was “absolutely not” attacking DEP employees.
“They did not have the resources and technology to effectively do their job,” he said, calling the department’s information technology resources “antiquated and inefficient.”
This led to a poor job in transmitting results to residents who had filed complaints, he said, but added that the department recognized the need of improving its IT program.
The audit identifies eight problems and gives 29 recommendations for solutions. DePasquale said on Wednesday that DEP agreed to 22 of them and disputed eight.
“The reality is, they agreed with the vast majority of our findings,” he said.
DePasquale said DEP took the audit to heart and is trying to move in a positive direction, but noted, “They have a lot of work to do.”
DePasquale also implied that it was not just DEP at fault.
“The state has a problem with complaint tracking in several areas of its government,” he said.