HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP) — Strained by limited resources and the rapid expansion of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, environmental regulators have failed to adequately monitor well safety or to provide clear and timely information to citizens, the state auditor general 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, covering a four-year period ending in 2012, also 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 citizen complaints.
And it criticizes the DEP for its lack of transparency in making information about individual wells easily accessible to the public.
"There is no one place on the (department's) website where the public can look to see all the information DEP has made available," the report says.
Christopher Abruzzo, Corbett's 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.
The audit report was released on the same day the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette published previously unreleased state statistics showing that gas and oil extraction has damaged Pennsylvania water supplies 209 times since the end of 2007.
The newspaper based its story on a Department of Environmental Protection spreadsheet obtained through a Right-to-Know Law request. DEP officials said they are planning to post the information on the department's website as part of ongoing efforts to make its activities more transparent.
The spreadsheet lists the water supplies by county, municipality and the date that DEP regulators determined that activities related to gas or oil extraction contaminated or diminished the flow to a water source.
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade group, told the newspaper the figures show the vast majority of gas and oil wells are developed without any negative environmental impact. During the period, nearly 20,000 new wells were drilled in the state, according to the newspaper.
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."
The environmentalist group PennFuture seized the opportunity to renew its call for an extraction tax on natural gas that would generate hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
"DEP needs additional funding, more cops on the beat and a robust monitoring system," said John Norbeck, the group's vice president and chief operating officer.
Patrick Henderson, a senior Corbett aide who attended DePasquale's news conference, said the department is no longer in a personnel bind thanks to recent funding increases that have made it possible to hire additional staffers.
Still, the adequacy of staffing and resources is "an ongoing, constant re-evaluation," he said.