Strained by the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania and limited resources, environmental regulators have failed to adequately monitor well safety or to provide clear and timely information to citizens, the state’s elected auditor said Tuesday.
Eugene DePasquale released a performance audit report that says the Department of Environmental Protection lacks a clear policy on the timeliness and frequency of inspections of the thousands of wells and does not routinely verify information the industry provides about waste disposal.
The more than 150-page report, which covers a four-year period ending in 2012, says the DEP does a poor job of communicating with citizens who file complaints about drilling-related water problems and lacks a reliable system for tracking complaints.
It also criticizes the DEP for its lack of transparency in making information about individual wells easily accessible.
Christopher Abruzzo, the DEP secretary, defended the department’s performance in a written response that was included in DePasquale’s report.
A 2012 law that represented the first overhaul of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas laws in more than three decades took effect near the end of the audit period and made significant changes in the department’s regulatory authority over the natural gas industry, Abruzzo said.
“To a great extent, the audit report reflects how the Oil and Gas Program formerly operated, not how the program currently functions,” he said. “Many of the recommendations in the audit report have already been implemented” or are under consideration by the administration.
DePasquale, a Democrat and former legislator, was elected to a four-year term as Pennsylvania’s fiscal watchdog in 2012. He vowed during his campaign to conduct an audit to check the state’s ability to protect public water sources from pollution amid a boom in natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region that Republican Gov. Tom Corbett encouraged.
In a cover letter to the governor, DePasquale said the DEP needs assistance.
“It is underfunded, understaffed and does not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development,” he wrote. Natural gas extraction “offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public’s trust, health and well-being.”
DePasquale and the DEP disagreed on one important point of law.
The auditors said DEP often ignores a legal mandate that it issue orders requiring corrective action to any operator found to have harmed a water supply. Instead, the auditor says the department negotiates settlements — undermining its authority.
“Stated simply, without fear of a `bite,’ DEP’s `bark’ will do little to ensure compliance,” the report says.
The department said the law does not require issuance of an order, but rather gives DEP discretion to decide how to proceed.
“DEP has found that working with operators to obtain voluntary compliance with the law is often a more effective and expeditious methods of restoring water supplies,” it said.