The Associated Press is out with a major report on recent pollution complaints related to gas and oil fracking in Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and Texas. The figures on Pennsylvania fracking are particularly interesting in light of last week’s decision by the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The court held that the state’s new uniform zoning plan for fracking violated a part of the state constitution because it nullified any attempts by local authorities to establish more stringent requirements.
The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has appealed the ruling, but its case could be seriously undermined by a renewed focus on evidence that fracking imposes risks and hazards on local communities.
Fracking and local control
Fracking involves pumping a chemical brine deep into shale formations to loosen deposits of oil and natural gas. It has been used for decades without much notice in thinly populated areas, mainly in the western U.S.
That changed partly with the discovery of the gas-rich Marcellus shale formation in the eastern U.S., which brought fracking into contact with far more populated communities.
Local control over fracking is a critical issue because of the potential for harmful impacts on individual residents and on existing economic activity, most notably agriculture and tourism.
While a statewide standard that establishes minimum zoning regulations is not problematic, the Pennsylvania law would have effectively imposed a maximum standard that did not adapt to local conditions.
The Supreme Court took that into account in its ruling. The relevant part of the state constitution is Article 1, Section 27, the Environmental Rights Amendment:
Natural Resources and the Public Estate
The people have a right to clean air, pure water, and to the preservation of the natural, scenic, historic and esthetic values of the environment. Pennsylvania’s public natural resources are the common property of all the people, including generations yet to come. As trustee of these resources, the Commonwealth shall conserve and maintain them for the benefit of all the people.
The Associated Press fracking report
The AP article is titled “Some states confirm water pollution from drilling.” Writer Kevin Begos details the findings of AP’s request for information from four states, with these results from Pennsylvania:
The AP found that Pennsylvania received 398 complaints in 2013 alleging that oil or natural gas drilling polluted or otherwise affected private water wells, compared with 499 in 2012. The Pennsylvania complaints can include allegations of short-term diminished water flow, as well as pollution from stray gas or other substances. More than 100 cases of pollution were confirmed over the past five years.
The full article is well worth a read, because Begos makes the point that the raw numbers tell only part of the story. Just as significant is the practice that of isolating individual complaints, which according to Begos is characteristic of Pennsylvania.
The result is that persons alleging a fracking-related problem are largely unaware that their case is one among many, and the overall effect is to discourage individuals from coming forward to report a complaint.
Prying statewide information out of Pennsylvania officials is not something that individuals can easily engage in, either. Begos’s report is the result of some determined labor by AP, which along with other news organizations engaged in a years-long battle with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection over access to statewide records.
Records from the other three states were easier to access, though only Texas provided a meaningful amount of detail. Here is a rundown of some of AP’s other findings:
Ohio has confirmed six cases of water-well contamination since 2010 but none were found to be related to fracking.
Out of 122 complaints of water-well contamination in West Virginia over the past four years, four cases resulted in corrective action undertaken by the driller.
Texas provided AP with a detailed spreadsheet including 62 allegations of water-well contamination from oil and gas drilling. However, according to a Texas official the state hasn’t confirmed any cases of water-well contamination related to drilling in the past ten years.
The low figures for confirmed cases are not particularly a surprise, since the fracking industry has been exempt from federal regulations requiring the disclosure of hazardous substances under the Clean Water Act, a gaping loophole that makes it virtually impossible to make a direct link between fracking-related pollutants and their source.
[Image: Pennsylvania postcard by pds209]