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Monday, May 20, 2013

Arguing from ignorance, part 2: gas development impact evidence not tracked - or even counted - in PA

Days after the publication of a study highlighting inadequate monitoring systems and technology leading to an argument from ignorance on the impact of hydraulic fracturing on water supplies, this must-read Scranton Times-Tribune article details the paper's investigation into suspected cases of damaged water supplies in Pennsylvania as a result of oil and gas development activity.

The Times-Tribune found that, while 77 percent of state investigations into water quality complaints between 2008 and the fall of 2012 lacked "enough evidence to tie them definitively to drilling", oil and gas development was determined by the state to have damaged the water supplies at least 161 Pennsylvania homes, farms, churches and businesses in that time period.


The complaints cover the broad swath of Pennsylvania where drilling is taking place

Reporter Laura Legere writes:

More than half of the records of contaminated water supplies confirmed by the state involved gas, loosened by drilling, seeping into drinking water aquifers. Faulty natural gas wells channeled methane into the water supplies for 90 properties... Three of those cases were tied to old wells, one of which caused an explosion at a home after gas entered through a floor drain and accumulated in a basement.

Drilling-related road construction contaminated water at two homes, while construction for a large water-storage pond called an impoundment contaminated another. Pipeline construction twice polluted water supplies with sediment. Stray cement or rock waste displaced by drilling, called cuttings, contaminated seven water supplies.

The state has never implicated the underground gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a contamination incident, but inspectors noted that brine contamination suggesting "an infiltration of frac water into the shallow ground water," damaged six fresh-water springs used for drinking water in northwestern Pennsylvania.

The article makes the case convincingly for tougher regulations and enforcement on all aspects of oil and gas development, and for pre- and post-drilling water quality monitoring.  But it also demonstrates the clear need for another regulation in Pennsylvania that is in the best interests of the public and industry alike - the regulation of the construction of private water wells.  Pennsylvania is one of two states in the nation that does not regulate private water wells.  That must change, immediately.

Perhaps most importantly, the article shows why transparency - from industry and from regulators - is critical to earning the public trust. The lack of transparency is on full display in this report and is one reason that almost two out of three Pennsylvanians support a drilling moratorium in order to study the risks. Amazingly, the Times-Tribune found that the state does not track - or event count - the number of letters it issues as a result of investigations of water quality damage complaints, and it took a state Open Records Law request - that had to be appealed to the state's Commonwealth Court - for the paper to obtain the information.  That is simply inexcusable.

The Times-Tribune reporting is a significant public service and highlights the risks and dangers - to the public and industry alike - from Pennsylvania's continuing argument from ignorance on shale gas development.


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