Gas Drilling Grand Jury

FILE—In this file photo from March 12, 2020, the flag of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania flies on a drilling rig as work continues at a shale gas well drilling site in St. Mary's, Pa. (AP Photo/Keith Srakocic, File)

HARRISBURG — A statewide grand jury report on Thursday said the state hasn’t done enough to protect neighbors of fracking operations.

The grand jury concluded that the state needs to establish larger cushions between fracking, or hydraulic fracture drilling, sites and homes and provide greater transparency about the chemicals used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale across much of the state.

“This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future,” said Attorney General Shapiro in a press conference Thursday. “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. There remains a profound gap between our Constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water, and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.”

Shapiro said the shortcomings in the state’s oversight of the fracking industry spanned the administrations of both former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett and current Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat who took office in 2015.

The report detailed complaints raised by neighbors in the decade since Pennsylvania’s fracking boom began. The natural gas industry has fracked just over 12,500 wells in Pennsylvania since the beginning of 2007.

“Airborne chemicals burned the throat and irritated exposed skin. One witness had a name for it: ‘frack rash.’ It felt like having alligator skin. At night, children would get intense, sudden nosebleeds; the blood would just pour out,” according to the grand jury’s report.

“Pets died; farm animals that lived outside started miscarrying, or giving birth to deformed offspring. But the worst was the children, who were most susceptible to the effects. Families went to their doctors for answers, but the doctors didn’t know what to do,” according to the grand jury report.

The report noted that medical efforts to diagnose what was sickening neighbors were hampered because gas companies wouldn’t fully disclose what chemicals were used in the fracking process.

“The companies said the compounds were ‘trade secrets’ and ‘proprietary information,’” according to the grand jury report.

The activity has been most intense in six counties — Washington, Greene, Susquehanna, Bradford. Tioga and Lycoming. Each county has more than 1,000 hydraulic fracture, or non-conventional, wells, according to Department of Environmental Protection data.

Medical issues

The grand jury report noted the state had received more than 20 environmental complaints about water pollution in Washington, Susquehanna and Bradford counties; and 32 complaints about air quality in Washington County.

The grand jury also reported that the Department of Health had received 125 complaints from people who said they were suffering medical problems due to exposure to pollution from fracking since 2011. Fifteen of those complaints were lodged last year.

Twenty-six residents of Susquehanna County told the Department of Health that they suffered from dermatological problems they blamed on exposure to chemicals from nearby fracking operations and 23 residents of Washington County complained about similar problems.

In addition, 29 Washington County residents complained about neurological problems they blamed on fracking pollution.

A Wolf spokeswoman said the report was most critical of the state’s efforts prior to Wolf taking office and that Wolf supports the grand jury’s conclusions.

“Wolf shares the Attorney General’s commitment to upholding Pennsylvania’s constitutional promise of clean air, pure water, and to protecting public health,” said Lyndsay Kensinger, a spokeswoman for the governor. “The Wolf Administration inherited a flawed ideological approach to regulation of unconventional oil and gas development that was forced on the departments of Environmental Protection and Health by the Corbett Administration, which promoted the rapid expansion of natural gas development and profit above these other priorities.”

Strong pushback

The Department of Environmental Protection pushed back strongly on many of the grand jury’s conclusions, calling the report “an inaccurate and incomplete picture of Pennsylvania’s regulatory program.”

The grand jury called for the state to extend the cushion between fracking sites and neighboring properties from 500 feet to 2,500 feet. The report also said that the state should require fracking companies to publicly disclose what chemicals are used during fracking.

In its response, DEP noted that while fracking companies can ask that the chemicals in fracking fluids be shielded from the public, but companies must disclose the chemicals to the agency.

DEP in its response also said it is not clear how the grand jury came up with its recommendation for increasing the setback between fracking sites and neighboring properties.

“The proposed setbacks are not supported with any information that establishes that these particular distances afford an appropriate level of protection and appear to have been chosen arbitrarily,” DEP said in its response. “Any proposal for new setbacks should include a scientific or technical rationale for the distances chosen.”

State Sen. Gene Yaw, R-Lycoming County, is chairman of the Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee and his district is home to the most productive natural gas wells in the state.

He said the Department of Environmental Protection has already addressed most of the issues raised in the grand jury report and said he thinks the remaining criticisms are unsubstantiated or have been discredited.

“I guess we don’t need DEP anymore, we just have to wait for the Attorney General to come out with a report,” he said. The report “is rehashing something for nothing. It’s kind of embarrassing for the attorney general,” Yaw said.

Other responses

Pennsylvania has “rigorous regulations and strong permitting requirements in place,” according to the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the trade group representing the natural gas industry.

“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,” said Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Spigelmyer.

The Clean Air Council environmental group, on the other hand, said the grand jury investigation was the result of diligent work documenting how the state allowed the natural gas industry’s “unchecked” expansion across rural Pennsylvania.

“Those recommendations are only a start,” said Joseph Otis Minott, executive director and chief counsel of Clean Air Council. “Given the industry’s lack of integrity and the need to move away from fossil fuels to combat climate change, under what possible conditions could the public feel safe continuing to allow the industry to operate here?”