Grand jury report blasts DEP, health department over fracking failures in Pa.

A scathing Pennsylvania grand jury report two years in the making blasted the state departments of Environmental Protection and Health, alleging years of turning a blind eye to complaints against the oil and gas industry left residents exposed to harmful water and air pollution that caused nosebleeds, mysterious sores and myriad other ailments.

The 243-page report, released Thursday by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, relied on nearly 300 hours of testimony, much of it from homeowners exposed to nearby fracking operations. The grand jury previously filed criminal charges against Range Resources and Cabot Oil and Gas for allegedly repeatedly breaking state environmental law.

The final report lists eight recommendations that are meant to protect residents.

Shapiro conceded that much of the report relies on anecdotal evidence and said the industry will no doubt try to fight back.

“They’re going to say … there’s no proof that any of this was really caused by fracking,” Shapiro said at a news conference in Harrisburg. “They’ll roll out so-called experts that they’ve paid. They’ll hold up all the donations they’ve made to the community. They’ll say, ‘Where did this water really come from?’ They’re going to ask you when the pictures were really taken.”

Shapiro held up a jar of thick, brown water that grand jurors saw as evidence. He pointed to a filter covered in brown sludge that was pulled from a drinking water well.

“That’s what they’re going to say and, respectfully, that’s all bogus,” Shapiro said.

The industry prioritizes public health and environmental safety, said David Spigelmyer, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group working with fracking companies.

“For anyone to suggest that we are not protecting our environment and public health while responsibly and safely producing clean and abundant American natural gas should better understand the facts and science behind natural gas energy development,” he said in a statement.

Jacquelyn Bonomo, president and CEO of the environmental advocacy group PennFuture, applauded what she called “common sense recommendations” made by the grand jury.

“This industry has blatantly run afoul of our laws, disrespected our communities and destroyed our natural resources,” Bonomo said in a statement.

Shapiro blamed inaction by DOH and DEP, claiming the latter ignored complaints or only followed up with a phone call to the accused company. He called it outrageous that after 16 years of the industry operating in Pennsylvania that there is still little data on the true health effects caused by the chemicals in the water and air.

It’s why the report relies on anecdotal evidence, he said.

“We know these things happened,” Shapiro said. “The DOH agreed with grand jurors that our inadequate understanding of the health impacts of fracking is a major problem because they — the DOH — failed to collect data and do their jobs in the past.”

When reached for comment, the DOH and DEP issued identical statements that blamed many of the issues highlighted in the report on the previous administration under former Gov. Tom Corbett.

“(Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration) has acted aggressively to address the previous administration’s regulatory failures, remove restrictions on enforcement, and has put in place new regulations to hold natural gas companies to some of the most stringent environmental standards anywhere in the country in order to protect public health and the environment,” they wrote.

Officials in the departments pointed to the increase in well inspections under the Wolf administration: 11,821 in four years under Corbett and 16,396 per year under Wolf.

The statement said many of the recommendations in the report “either mirror activities that the administration already has in place or supports as additional actions by the legislature.”

‘It was putrid’

Jurors pointed to a portion of Article 1 of the state Constitution, which contains the Environmental Rights Amendment.

“The people have a right to clean air, pure water and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and aesthetic values of the environment,” it reads. “Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.”

The commonwealth, the grand jury charged, failed residents in that regard.

Grand jurors noted that they believed many DEP employees were doing “the best job possible” with limited resources. Others, they wrote, “appeared to show undue deference to the fracking industry, and undue indifference to citizens with serious complaints about appalling effects they were suffering.”

They heard from numerous homeowners who detailed the health and other physical effects of living close to a drilling site.

Jurors wrote that many entered into agreements under false pretenses or without getting a full portrait of what the industry would do to their surroundings.

“There is no country living out there anymore. Getting out of our driveway alone is dicey at best,” one witness testified, noting the slew of massive trucks that lumbered up and down their road.

Beyond the disruption of peace and quiet — jurors wrote some witnesses testified that drilling operations continued day and night — were the health impacts.

“We started getting sores all over us,” one witness said of showering. “We were sick to our stomachs and having problems with breathing whenever we were in the shower. And it would burn our eyes, nose and throat, and it just — it was putrid.”

One parent, according to the report, described chronic nosebleeds her daughter had that matched the timing of maintenance at the well site.

“It was getting really bad like she had this pretty little — her first princess bedspread and it was just ruined,” the parent testified, according to the report. “It got to the point where I was using hydrogen peroxide to get the blood out of the carpet. That is not something normal. The doctors couldn’t find any reason for it.”

According to the report, another parent described similar experiences with her children.

“They would just be standing there and then all of the sudden blood would start pouring out of their noses,” she testified.

Shapiro railed against the circumstances that he said allowed these health problems — particularly among children — to happen.

“But it wasn’t just the homeowners,” he said. “Pets became violently ill. Local farmers had horses die. Livestock became infertile and miscarried.”

Recommendations

Shapiro likened the imbalance between residents and the drilling industry to David and Goliath.

“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” he said. “It’s about the big fights we must take on to protect Pennsylvanians — to ensure that their voices are not drowned out by those with bigger wallets and better connections.”

The eight recommendations by the grand jury:

  • Expand no-drill zones around homes from 500 feet to 2,500 feet;
  • Require companies to publicly disclose all chemicals used in drilling and fracking;
  • Require the regulation of gathered lines, which are smaller pipelines;
  • Measure air pollution as a whole rather than each pollutant individually;
  • Require safer transportation of waste water from well sites, including truck labels;
  • Conduct a comprehensive study of the health effects;
  • Limit the ability of DEP employees to take jobs with the private sector industry;
  • Allow the Attorney General’s Office to prosecute criminal complaints against gas companies without being referred by the DEP or local district attorneys.

Megan Guza is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Megan at 412-380-8519, mguza@triblive.com or via Twitter .

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Published at Thu, 25 Jun 2020 17:09:48 +0000

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