By Joseph Otis Minott
More than a decade after the fracked gas boom began in Pennsylvania, the people of the commonwealth finally have access to a report that officially acknowledges and documents the harms inflicted by the gas industry on our people, land, air, and water.
On June 25, Attorney General Josh Shapiro publicly released the first report of the Forty-Third Statewide Investigating Grand Jury, the findings of which resulted from two years of investigation and eyewitness testimony.
The report pulls back the veil on the significant damage to public health and the environment caused by the unconventional gas industry and offers some straightforward, commonsense recommendations to the governor and legislature to introduce some safety and sanity in regulating the industry. It’s up to Pennsylvania residents to make sure these steps are taken and the industries and individuals behind this destruction are held accountable.
Having worked as an environmental and public health advocate throughout this era, I have seen the damage fracking has done firsthand — the lives and homes destroyed. The unexplained bleeding. The rashes. The livestock dying of mystery ailments. The chemical smells in the water.
For over a decade, these have been common complaints from residents living in Pennsylvania’s fracking country. But the drillers and gas operators continue to deny the obvious connection to their heavy industrial activities. Even more alarming, the Grand Jury Report highlights systemic failures by our state government agencies, which took a hands-off approach to the industry and chose to remain willfully ignorant about its devastating impacts.
Some of the worst wrongdoing the grand jury uncovered took place under the administration of former Republican Gov. Tom Corbett.
Under Corbett, the state Department of Health, which designs and coordinates responses to public health crises like COVID-19, was directed to ignore residents pleading for help if they so much as mentioned any one of 20 words relating to fracking when speaking to agency staff.
But by no means are these problems behind us. The harms documented by the Grand Jury are active and ongoing, and the state government’s approach still needs to change. “Even today,” the Grand Jury found, “there is apparently no policy that requires DEP [the state Department of Environmental Protection] to notify unsuspecting neighbors that a nearby resident’s water was found to be contaminated, and therefore that their water could be contaminated as well.”
And the grand jury found much more, including failures of DEP to regulate, train, inspect, test, notify, and issue violations. All of this leaves residents with little protection from a gas industry running amok.
It’s no surprise that the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the propaganda arm of the gas industry, has denounced the Grand Jury Report.
Meanwhile, the findings offered DEP and Governor Wolf a unique opportunity to acknowledge the human suffering and environmental destruction caused by the gas industry over the years and start a dialogue on how to remedy the situation.
Disappointingly, DEP instead decided to spend thousands of dollars from its depleted coffers hiring a corporate law firm to write a defensive 49-page response nitpicking the report, belittling the complaints of residents and accepting no responsibility.
Four of the last six DEP heads left public service and started working for polluting industries. Emblematic of DEP’s defensive response is its claim that “there is no evidence of any such revolving door at DEP.” To state the obvious, the first step in solving any problem is recognizing there is one.
Pennsylvania could have taken a different approach to fracking. It still can.
The state of New York offers an example: it undertook a detailed and exhaustive examination of the evidence on the risks of fracking. It found that the risks were too great to allow fracking to move forward in the state. In the end, the answer was simple.
As the acting commissioner of the New York State Department of Health said at the time, based on the department’s research, “I asked myself, ‘would I let my family live in a community with fracking?’ The answer is no. I therefore cannot recommend anyone else’s family to live in such a community either.”
The evidence that fracking poses great risks to public health and the environment can no longer be ignored or denied.
The Grand Jury Report modestly lists eight commonsense steps Pennsylvania could take now to at least “minimize the hazards arising from unconventional drilling,” such as keeping fracking wells half a mile from homes and ending the revolving door at DEP. The state needs to move on these issues now.
And those recommendations are just a first step. The grand jury described them as “necessary and obvious.” We must treat fracking as the environmental and public health crisis that it is.
This means prosecuting the gas industry like any other criminal enterprise that profits by breaking the law. This means shutting down repeat offenders instead of slapping them on the wrist. And this means booting the foxes from the henhouse and separating DEP leadership from the industry it is legally bound to oversee.
Read the report. And then ask yourself this simple question: would you let your family live in a community with fracking?
Joseph Otis Minott is the executive director and chief counsel of the Clean Air Council. He writes from Philadelphia.