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PA Citizens Take Action into Their Own Hands as DEP Finally Comes Clean

Daniel Raichel

Posted September 4, 2014 in Health and the Environment

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It only took five years, but the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) finally released a list of all the confirmed cases where “DEP determined that a private water supply was impacted by oil and gas activities.” 

In total, drilling activities in Pennsylvania polluted supplies 243 times, 34 more times than discovered by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette earlier this summer, and equivalent to roughly one incident a week if averaged out since the start of the fracking boom.  In reality, the number may be even higher, as this list was released on the heels of a report by the Pennsylvania Auditor General concluding that DEP did not timely inspect all active wells or consistently issue orders to drillers who had polluted water supplies and allegations that DEP purposely ignored citizen complaints regarding oil and gas activities.

While it’s good to see DEP finally beginning to cope with its fracking problem, many Pennsylvanians are not waiting for the state to get its act together.  Whether it’s a new study from Texas finding “alarming” levels of arsenic in drinking water near fracking well sites or preliminary scientific results finding a correlation between proximity to frack sites and birth defects (see also, here), new information about the harms of fracking is coming in on a weekly if not daily basis, adding evidence to the experience of residents living in shale country who have reported health and community impacts for years.  Armed with this information and empowered by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court’s defense of their environmental rights in last year’s Robinson decision, Pennsylvanians are already taking on fracking battles in their own communities.  And better yet, they’re winning.

As an example, last Friday a Lycoming County judge struck down a local conditional use zoning permit issued by Fairfield Township that would have allowed fracking in a Residential Agricultural district.  In short, the court held that the Township had failed to show that industrial fracking was “similar to and compatible with other uses permitted” within the residential zone as required by the code.  In particular, the court noted that normal residential uses:

  • “do not involve the use of industrial machinery and chemicals, do not entail thousands of roundtrips of heavy truck traffic, do not cause loud noises at all hours of the day, do not impose threats to human health and safety and do not have negative impacts on the environment.”

This decision came in the same week that two Pennsylvania landowners similarly challenged the granting of a special use permit in Pulaski Township.  Also, that same week, two drilling companies, XTO Energy and Hilcorp Energy, revoked fracking permit applications in response to citizen challenges—the first, for a well that would have been located in a high-quality watershed that feeds into a state park, and the second, to employ the controversial technique of forced pooling for the first time since the beginning of the fracking boom.

The DEP and other commonwealth agencies, like the Public Utilities Commission—which is now appealing the most recent decision in the Robinson litigation—should take cue from Pennsylvania citizens standing up for their communities and support their efforts.  But while there’s a fear that that’s not likely to happen anytime soon, it’s good to see that Pennsylvanians are not standing idly by.

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Switchboard is the staff blog of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the nation’s most effective environmental group. For more about our work, including in-depth policy documents, action alerts and ways you can contribute, visit NRDC.org.

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