Since 2008, Pennsylvanians whose property sits atop the gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation have suffered through enough environmental problems to clutter an encyclopedia: A is for arsenic, found in soil at concentrations of 2,600 times what's recommended. M is for methane -- enough to blow up a concrete well. X is for the toxin xylene. Et cetera. Sometimes troubles like these occur naturally. But more and more often, they have become the M.O. of an increasingly reckless natural gas industry -- one that's been exempt from nearly a dozen important environmental laws since 2005.
A report published Monday by Pennsylvania Land Trust vividly illustrates the breadth of the gas industry's complicity in drilling accidents across the state. According to the findings, 43 gas companies operating in Pennsylvania were responsible for nearly 1,500 environmental violations between Jan. 1, 2008 and July 25, 2010. A few of these companies had more violations than actual wells drilled.
PLT's findings draw on Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) records related to horizontal hydraulic fracturing, a controversial gas extraction process. "Fracking," as it's known, entails pummeling underground rock formations with water, sand and chemicals, then harvesting the methane that's released.
Of the 1,435 violations PLT reviewed, 952 were classified as "having the most potential for direct damage on the environment." These included 154 violations involving the discharge of industrial waste; 277 involving improper erosion and sediment plans developed/implemented; and 288 for improper construction of wastewater impoundments. Pennsylvania's Clean Streams Law was broken 100 times, and additional lapses -- comprising a little less than half of the total incidents -- included improper waste management, improper well casing construction, permitting violations, improper blowout prevention, and faulty pollution prevention practices.
The report (PDF), is not just limited to the violations themselves. It also ranks drilling companies in order of their compliance failures. The worst perpetrator, East Resources Inc., had 138 violations at 140 drill sites between 2008 and 2010. In second place was Chesapeake Appalachia LLC, with 118 violations at 153 wells.
Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. came in fourth, logging 94 violations at only 60 wells. Cabot, which was sued by more than a dozen families in Dimock, PA last November for allegedly contaminating their drinking water, has become a sort of unwilling case study in the dangers of fracking -- and the limits of state oversight. Since Cabot began its Marcellus operations, Pennsylvania regulators have at times banned the company from fracking and issued approximately $360,000 in fines. As recently as last Tuesday, the company was charged with spilling between 120 and 130 gallons of diesel fuel.
"Cabot is clearly amongst the worst of actors in the whole horror show that we've seen unfold," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "This report confirms what many of us have known for some time: The regulatory structure in Pennsylvania isn't up to the task of handling the Marcellus Shale boom."
The PLT's report, according to Sinding, demonstrates the reactionary nature of Pennsylvania's lawmaking. Because Pennsylvania began large-scale gas exploration in the Marcellus without adequate environmental considerations, state officials have been forced to play catch-up every time a drilling operation gets messy.
"It's like environmental whack-a-mole," she said. "This report is the proof in the pudding. Pennsylvania allowed the Marcellus Shale rush to happen before they even asked hard questions."
Her viewpoint has some merit. Many of Pennsylvania's toughest gas drilling policies weren't instituted until 2009 or 2010 -- more than a year after large-scale drilling activity began. It wasn't until July 2, 2010, for example, that drillers were required to treat their water to the safe drinking water standard for total dissolved solids (TDS); and a series of "strengthened regulations" that will "require best well design and construction practices" won't go into effect until this November.
Pennsylvania's DEP, on the other hand, views itself as a sort of front line in the fight against careless drilling practices. "We told the public right from the beginning that
Marcellus drilling is industrial activity, and that there is no such thing as zero impact gas drilling of any sort," said the agency's secretary, John Hanger. "Even when the drilling is done well and with high standards, there will be impacts."
PLT's report, according to Hanger, merely illustrates how strongly Pennsylvania has regulated gas drilling violations every step of the way. "We're not going to tolerate mediocre and substandard performance," he said. "This is not actually rocket science. It's safe handling of materials, proper construction of impoundment, proper operations. This is not hard stuff to do if you have a true culture of safety."
But with BP's Deepwater Horizon disaster (and the revelations of gross regulatory mismanagement that accompanied it) highlighting the apparent lack of such a culture, environmentalists like Sinding remain skeptical.
"The extractive industries in this country have been able to operate with a dearth of oversight," she said. "When you look at fossil fuel development in this country, it includes BP. It includes mountaintop removal. You see the same problems across the board."