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DEP relied on gas driller for Franklin Forks investigation, candidate claims

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger criticized DEP's handling of a water contamination case during a press conference in Wilkes-Barre.

Laura Legere / StateImpact Pennsylvania

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger criticized DEP's handling of a water contamination case during a press conference in Wilkes-Barre.

Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hanger is accusing the Department of Environmental Protection of giving a natural gas drilling company too much influence over the agency’s investigation of a high-profile water contamination complaint in Susquehanna County.

Hanger, a former DEP secretary, said Thursday that DEP handed key portions of its investigation into the cause of high levels of methane, metals and salt in the groundwater in Franklin Forks to WPX Energy, the company accused of damaging the water supplies.

Consultants for WPX produced a 375-page report for DEP last December that concluded that the well water at three homes mirrored gas-tainted water historically found in the region and in a natural salt spring a mile and a half away. DEP reached the same conclusion in April when it determined that gas drilling was not to blame for the families’ water problems.

A DEP spokeswoman said the agency routinely asks for reports from companies suspected of causing environmental impacts and it also gathers information from people making complaints.

“Our determination is based totally on our 16-month investigation by our trained oil and gas specialists,” spokeswoman Colleen Connolly said. “We review all the evidence and reach our own independent conclusion. WPX Energy had no say in our conclusion.”

DEP has refused to release its own report of the investigation, citing a need to protect residents’ private information. DEP regularly makes available or redacts homeowners’ names, addresses and water quality data in its public files, but Connolly reiterated Thursday that DEP will not release the report “at this point.”

Hanger, who said he has not seen DEP’s report, said WPX’s involvement in the Franklin Forks investigation differs from normal information exchanges between regulators and companies.

“From what I can determine, this is a case where DEP has actually relied on WPX to do major parts of the investigation,” he said during a press conference outside DEP’s Wilkes-Barre office. “These investigations need to have DEP staff and DEP resources in charge.”

He called on DEP to conduct a new investigation that is “fully independent, transparent and thorough” and suggested that the state create an independent investigatory bureau to respond to complaints related to drilling activities.

Last week, Hanger called for DEP to reopen the Franklin Forks investigation to consider new data about the well water gathered by an Ohio State University scientist. Connolly said DEP will review any evidence Hanger provides, but the agency has not reopened the case.

In November, WPX won a court order to remove temporary water supplies it had installed last year at two Franklin Forks homes. The company dropped that effort on Friday and donated the water tanks to the families instead after critics called the company’s actions cold-hearted.

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