Pennsylvania

Energy. Environment. Economy.

Budget may force Pa. back to square one on drilling regulations

The DEP has spent two years crafting regulations for oil and gas surface activities. It may have to start all over again.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The DEP has spent two years crafting regulations for oil and gas surface activities. It may have to start all over again.

Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection may have to go back to the drawing board in its two-year overhaul of drilling regulations, because the new state budget contains language changing the rules for oil and gas wells.

Governor Corbett signed the legislature’s $29 billion spending plan yesterday. The new well regulations were among other items slipped into a companion bill, known as the fiscal code. Democrats challenged the constitutionality of the move, noting that bills are supposed to adhere to one subject, but the objections were overruled in the House.

The law now makes distinctions between modern deeper, Marcellus Shale wells and shallower, conventional wells. It mirrors a bill introduced by Senate Present Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati (R- Jefferson) earlier this spring.

Given the new law, the DEP’s yet-to-be-finalized regulations may be in jeopardy.

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Wolf says he would ‘restore trust’ in health department drilling policies

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he will work to restore public trust in how the state handles health complaints related to gas drilling.

Kimberly Paynter/WHYY

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he would "put a premium on transparency" in how the state handles health complaints related to gas drilling.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate Tom Wolf says he wants to restore public trust in the state Department of Health. The agency was recently accused by former employees of having policies aimed at muzzling its workers on the issue of natural gas drilling.

As StateImpact Pennsylvania has previously reported, two retired state health department workers claim employees were instructed not to respond to phone calls from people who complained about natural gas operations.

In 2012, employees were sent a list of 19 drilling-related “buzzwords” and directed to forward phone calls from people who used those words to the Bureau of Epidemiology. Employees were also required to fill out a permission form and get high-level approval before attending any meetings on topics related to Marcellus Shale development.

While campaigning Wednesday in Chambersburg, Wolf wouldn’t weigh in on specific policies supported by public health advocates– such as increasing funding to the department or creating a public registry of drilling-related complaints.

But he said if he’s elected, he would work to make the department more accountable.

“The idea is to make people actually trust their government—look to government for answers–not to think that we’re alien and the enemy,” he said. “With the Department of Health and throughout my administration I would put a premium on transparency.”

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Industry group promotes new ‘good neighbor’ policies for drillers

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Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

The nations largest oil and gas trade group has unveiled a new set of community relations guidelines–aimed at improving interactions between drillers and the people who live near hydraulic fracturing sites.

The American Petroleum Institute released the 9-page document today, calling it a set of “good neighbor” policies.

In a telephone press conference Wednesday with reporters, API’s New York State spokeswoman Karen Moreau repudiated questions about whether the industry has been too slow in responding to public concerns about the boom in shale development and the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

“I spend a great deal of my time traveling across New York focusing on this very subject,” she said. “We don’t take a page out of the playbook of radical environmental groups who are not held to the same standards.”

The new policies come just over a week after New York State’s highest court upheld the right of towns there to ban fracking operations.

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How are energy boom states dealing with drilling-related health complaints?

Kimberly Paynter/Newsworks.org

Different states are addressing the impacts of shale drilling on public health in different ways.

Is heavy drilling making some people sick?

It a question doctors, public health researchers and regulators in oil and gas-producing states are still struggling to answer roughly six years into the American shale boom.

So far, one thing is clear: different states approach the issue of public health and drilling in different ways.

StateImpact Pennsylvania teamed up with Inside Energy - a collaboration of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – to learn more about how states are dealing with the intersection of drilling and public health. Here’s what we found:

  • Three states – including Pennsylvania, Colorado and North Dakota – log complaints in databases.
  • Five of the state health departments we contacted said they were not tracking health complaints at all.
  • Two states have put large-scale drilling on hold until they complete reviews of the environmental and health impacts of drilling.

Some states not tracking health complaints

“The Ohio Department of Health does not maintain a database nor do we have a monitoring program,” said spokeswoman Melanie Amato in an e-mail. “The Ohio Department of Natural Resources tracks oil and gas complaints, but nothing related to health.”

Similarly, officials in Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming and West Virginia said their agencies had little or no regulatory role in oil and gas development. All five states referred us to their oil and gas commissions or environmental protection departments.

In West Virginia, health officials in one county have struck out on their own.

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Intersex fish found in three Pa. rivers; DEP sampling waterways

A recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, including the Susquehanna.

Scott LaMar/WITF

A recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins, including the Susquehanna.

The LA Times reports the state Department of Environmental Protection has begun sampling waterways in response to a recent study by the U.S. Geologic Survey which found intersex fish in three Pennsylvania river basins.

Male fish carrying eggs were found in the Delaware, Susquehanna and Ohio River systems.

The USGS said the findings show that exposure to chemicals that disrupt endocrine or hormone systems – such as estrogen – may be more widespread than researchers previously thought.

More from the LA Times: 

Amanda Witman, a DEP spokeswoman, said the agency is testing two tributaries of the Susquehanna River: Juniata River and Swatara Creek.

The USGS research said that two fish species, smallmouth bass and white sucker, were exhibiting intersex characteristics due to exposure to endocrine-disrupting chemicals — hormones and hormone-mimicking chemicals that caused the male fish to produce eggs.

“The sources of estrogenic chemicals are most likely complex mixtures from both agricultural sources, such as animal wastes, pesticides and herbicides, and human sources from wastewater treatment plant effluent and other sewage discharges,” said Vicki Blazer, a fish biologist and lead author of the USGS study.

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Aggressive Tactic on the Fracking Front

For the last eight years, Pennsylvania has been riding the natural gas boom, with companies drilling and fracking thousands of wells across the state. And in a little corner of Washington County, some 20 miles outside of Pittsburgh, EQT Corporation has been busy 2013 drilling close to a dozen new wells on one site.

It didn’t take long for the residents of Finleyville who lived near the fracking operations to complain 2013 about the noise and air quality, and what they regarded as threats to their health and quality of life. Initially, EQT, one of the largest producers of natural gas in Pennsylvania, tried to allay concerns with promises of noise studies and offers of vouchers so residents could stay in hotels to avoid the noise and fumes.

But then, in what experts say was a rare tactic, the company got more aggressive: it offered all of the households along Cardox Road $50,000 in cash if they would agree to release the company from any legal liability, for current operations as well as those to be carried out in the future. It covered potential health problems and property damage, and gave the company blanket protection from any kind of claim over noise, dust, light, smoke, odors, fumes, soot, air pollution or vibrations.

The agreement also defined the company’s operations as not only including drilling activity but the construction of pipelines, power lines, roads, tanks, ponds, pits, compressor stations, houses and buildings.

“The release is so incredibly broad and such a laundry list,” said Doug Clark, a gas lease attorney in Pennsylvania who mainly represents landowners. “You’re releasing for everything including activity that hasn’t even occurred yet. It’s crazy.”

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Family of worker killed in southwest Pa. gas well fire sues Chevron

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron Appalachia.

Katie Colaneri/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

The family of Ian McKee, a worker who was killed in a February natural gas well explosion in Greene County, is suing Chevron.

The family of a worker who was killed in a February explosion at a Chevron natural gas well site in Greene County has filed suit against the company.

Ian McKee, 27, was a contract worker with Texas-based Cameron International. On the morning of Feb. 11, McKee was participating in a safety meeting on the site in Dunkard Township when state officials said one of three wells on the pad burst into flames, killing McKee and leaving another worker with minor injuries.

The fire continued to burn for five days. McKee’s remains were found more than a week after the explosion. He left behind a fiancee who was pregnant with his child.

John Gismondi, a lawyer for McKee’s parents, Denise Olsen and Robert McKee, said they are filing suit in order to make a legal claim for information about the circumstances of their son’s death.

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Governor’s office denies involvement with health department drilling policies

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

Marie Cusick/ StateImpact Pennsylvania

A spokesman for Gov. Corbett said the governor's office was not involved in the Department of Health's policies on handling drilling-related health complaints.

At a press conference Wednesday afternoon, Governor Tom Corbett refused to answer questions about allegations state health department employees were silenced on the issue of natural gas development.

A StateImpact Pennsylvania investigation has revealed that in 2012, employees were sent a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” as part of a guidance for how to handle drilling-related health complaints. The words and phrases included drilling, fracking, Marcellus Shale, skin rash, and cancer cluster. The list was accompanied by instructions to send complaints to the Bureau of Epidemiology.

Two department staffers — now retired, but active when the guidance was sent out — said employees were also instructed orally not to discuss symptoms and other information with callers who mentioned words or phrases on the list. The retired workers claim they were also told not to personally to return phone calls from people who used the words.

Documents obtained by StateImpact Pennsylvania also show that starting in 2011, community health employees were required to get high-level permission to attend meetings and forums on Marcellus Shale topics.

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In Colorado, a public database for drilling-related complaints

Weld County, Colorado resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

Courtesy of InsideEnergy

Weld County, Colorado resident Eric Ewing took this photo of a gas flare outside his home.

In Pennsylvania, the state Department of Health’s Bureau of Epidemiology logs complaints related to natural gas development in a database that the agency says is not available to the public.

StateImpact Pennsylvania has reported that department employees were also given a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” as part of a guidance on how to handle complaints. Two former health department staffers and some public health advocates question whether the state’s policies are keeping complaints from reaching the Bureau of Epidemiology for follow-up. The department of health says all complaints are investigated.

Other oil and gas states are dealing with the issue of health and drilling in different ways.

A report by Inside Energy – a collaboration of public media stations in Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota – takes a look at how western states are responding.

In Colorado, all complaints related to oil and gas drilling are posed to a public database maintained by the state’s Oil and Gas Conservation Commission. Inside Energy also reports the database complaints from the public as well as inspections and remediations.

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Pa. confirms drilling “buzzword” list; says it’s meant to guide, not silence employees

State health secretary Michael Wolf said the agency's policies on Marcellus Shale drilling are not meant to silence employees, but to guide them on how to deal with health complaints.

Lindsay Lazarski/WHYY

State health secretary Michael Wolf said the agency's policies on Marcellus Shale drilling are not meant to silence employees, but to guide them on how to deal with health complaints.

Did Pennsylvania health department officials circulate a list of drilling-related “buzzwords” and a meeting permission form that led department staff to believe they were being silenced on the issue of natural gas development?

Two weeks ago, when StateImpact Pennsylvania first reported on the buzzwords list and meeting form, the department’s answer to that question was no.

Since then, StateImpact Pennsylvania has obtained copies of the documents, which show that department employees needed high-level permission to attend forums on Marcellus Shale.

Agency officials confirm those documents are authentic.

Two retirees with the Department of Health have said that because of the department’s policies, they and their colleagues concluded they were not supposed to respond directly to public health concerns or attend forums about drilling.

Michael Wolf, state Secretary of Health, said in an interview with StateImpact Pennsylvania this week that the goal was not to stifle the agency’s roughly 1,400 employees, but to ensure “that we are speaking with one voice.”

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