After years of lawsuits and Freedom of Information Act requests, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) finally revealed the truth on Thursday: Oil and gas drilling operations have contaminated private drinking wells in 243 cases in 22 counties.
Six years ago, Pennsylvania became the site of an industrial boom. The Marcellus Shale, a geologic formation located in the southwestern corner of the state, was declared one of the largest natural gas reservoirs in the world. It quickly became the site of extensive hydraulic fracturing operations, with companies pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into the ground to break apart rocks containing the gas.
Almost as quickly, these 6,000 gas wells became the source of residential complaints.
Before his death earlier this year, farmer Terry Greenwood was one of the most visible opponent of frackers in the state. In 2008, the DEP confirmed his suspicion that a nearby drilling operation had contaminated his well water. The investigation occurred only after significant effort on Greenwood’s part, and he was not the only Pennsylvanian to experience such government reluctance.
In April, municipalities sued the DEP for the right to know about contamination in their springs and groundwater. Prior to the case, the state’s oil and gas law, Act 13, made it the “practice” of the DEP to not issue violation notices or fines or “formal determinations of contamination” where fracking companies reached private settlements with well owners. In other words, even when water pollution was confirmed by regulators, the violations often went unrecorded or publicly reported.
“The DEP must provide citizens with information about the potential harm coming their way,” said John Smith, one of the attorneys representing municipalities in the lawsuit. “If it doesn’t record and make available the violations records then it is denying the public accurate information, which is unconscionable.”
In January, Pennsylvania acknowledged that it had received complaints on fracking-related water issues in 2012 and 2013, but would not release further details. The AP now knows that the state received 499 complaints in 2012 and 398 in 2013, all alleging that oil or gas had polluted private wells.
On Thursday, the DEP posted details of the 243 water contamination cases on its website.
“I guess this is a step in the right direction,” said Thomas Au of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club. “But this is something that should have been made public a long time ago.”
The revelation that hundreds of water sources have been contaminated by fracking confirms the worst fears of residents. Retired state health officials have gone on record saying that the Department of Health told them to ignore residents’ fracking-related complaints, and Dr. Eli Avila, the state’s former health secretary, said Pennsylvania has failed to conduct fracking-related health impact studies.
Of the 22 counties confirmed by the DEP, Susquehanna, Tioga, Lycoming and Bradford show the highest incidences of contamination.