Pennsylvania Fracking Water Contamination Much Higher Than Reported

It's called regulatory capture when a government agency tasked with protecting us secretly does the opposite. Just hide complaints instead of recording them, and change the way you count wells, and voilà - water contamination "disappears". A 44% contamination rate turns into 3%.

... in Pennsylvania,...: mismanaged record-keeping and reporting by the Department of the Environment (DEP). Based on 2,309 previously unreported fracking complaints unearthed by the non-profit Public Herald, the public can now peek into 1,275 fracking water complaints from 17 of 40 fracking counties. However, Pennsylvania’s official tally of water contamination is only 271 for all 40 counties.

Contrary to the EPA fracking study’s conclusion, the prevalence of drinking water contamination appears to be much higher than previously reported.

Pennsylvania’s DEP regulates the oil and gas industry and is also the “911 dispatch center” for fracking complaints. DEP’s role is to register citizen fracking complaints, research complaints and conduct water tests if needed.

Buried in Folders: 1,275 Water Complaints

Prior to Public Herald’s fracking complaints database (an open source project named #fileroom) which was launched in September 2015, the public had little access to Pennsylvania’s fracking water complaints. What was known is that the DEP fracking complaint system was horrendous.

In May 2014, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General reviewed DEP complaint files and reported eight areas of mishandling with “sloppy record keeping” topping the list. 

When asked if the public’s health was being threatened from fracking water contamination, Pennsylvania’s Auditor General publicly commented, “we can’t say one way or the other because their [DEP] record keeping is so poor.”

The fracking complaints were stored in filing cabinets and most cases weren’t entered into any formal central tracking system.

Seventeen (or 44 percent) Water Contamination Rate—Depending on How You Look at It

If you’re a homeowner or an elected official, assessing the scale of water complaints, comparing to the number of well pad locations is more relevant than comparing to the number of wells drilled. Using the higher figure of wells drilled, which most reporting does, minimizes the scale of impact to people living near concentrated fracking operations.

To understand how this changes the story, if DEP’s official tally of 271 confirmed water contaminations is compared to 9,632 fracking wells drilled since 2000, that’s a three percent water contamination rate. That figure seems pretty low and supports the EPA’s conclusion that fracking water contamination isn’t widespread.

But if you dig into Public Herald’s #fileroom database, as the chart above illustrates, 1,275 water complaints were filed in 17 counties with only 2,923* fracking well pads. Those well pads hosted 7,627 gas wells. That means that for about every two fracking well pads, one homeowner called in a water complaint, instead of one for every seven wells drilled. That’s a 44 percent fracking water complaint rate suggesting that water well issues are pervasive. Even if the water complaints are compared to the number of wells drilled in these 17 counties, it’s a 17 percent water complaint rate.

Aren't you glad PA has a Republican governor, just like Michigan?

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