The investigative news team at Public Herald has discovered 177 cases of misconduct committed by officials within the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) related to water contamination cases related to oil and gas operations.
Due to missing data, this number is not comprehensive and more investigation is required.
“In 2011, we first noticed DEP mishandling water pollution cases,” said Editor-in-chief Joshua Pribanic. “Since then, we’ve collected over 9,440 of DEP’s investigations and analyzed about 1,000 of them. But many records are missing key data, such as water samples and inspector notes, so it’s impossible to know how often DEP has really engaged in misconduct.”
Since 2004, when the controversial process known as “fracking” began in Pennsylvania, over 4,100 drinking water complaints related to oil and gas operations have been reported to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Public Herald reported in January that these complaints have increased alongside the rise of fracking. However, DEP claims that over 93% of these water complaints are not related to oil and gas activity.
“This seemed suspicious, given what we already knew about how some of these cases are handled,” said Pribanic.
In their report, the team has characterized three types of official misconduct related to Section 3218 of Pennsylvania’s Act 13 – malfeasance (breaking the law), misfeasance (wrongful actions) and negligence (careless behavior). Cases of misconduct are available for public review in an online spreadsheet that includes the names of the DEP inspectors and supervisors responsible for each case.
Examples of malfeasance identified by Public Herald include:
DEP inspector fails to investigate
DEP inspector finds evidence of water impacts but makes a non-impact determination
DEP orders an oil and gas operator to restore or replace a residents water supply, but fails to issue a positive determination, leaving the case “off the books”
Cases of misfeasance include:
DEP fails to conduct comprehensive water sampling
DEP inspectors refuse to sample water and make non-impact determinations for complaints based on the fact that residents live outside a 1,000 - 2,500 foot ‘zone of presumption’
DEP does not provide sufficient evidence for their non-impact determinations
Public Herald also describes negligence on the part of DEP in the report, mainly with regard to transparency.
“DEP does not list all positive determinations on their website,” said data journalist Sierra Shamer. “For example, we’ve found 49 cases of water contamination related to oil and gas activities that were confirmed by DEP but not disclosed in their online list of total water supply impacts.”
“According to the Department, 284 private water supplies have been impacted by oil and gas operations,” said Executive Director Melissa Troutman. “This number is false and misleads the public about the true costs related to fracking in Pennsylvania – people are losing their water, and state officials are issuing new permits to polluters as if it’s not happening.”
The team plans to deliver their report to Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro for review.
Shapiro’s Director of Communications, Joe Grace, wrote to Public Herald in an email that, “By law, the Office of Attorney General has authority to investigate state officials or employees for criminal conduct affecting the performance of their public duties, whether the matter involves the environment or any other issue.”