In grand jury report, Shapiro calls out gas drillers; faults Pa. for not adequately watchdogging the industry

Pa. Attorney General Josh Shapiro holds a bottle of contaminated water from a home near a natural gas well. He was speaking at a press conference to unveil a 235-page grand jury report on fracking in Pennsylvania on June 25, 2020. (Screenshot of livestream)

After two years of investigation, Attorney General Josh Shapiro released a grand jury report Thursday taking aim at the state’s natural gas industry.

The report calls out what he says is the corporate negligence that contaminated Pennsylvanians’ water and air, as well as a state regulatory bureaucracy that is, at best, unprepared to watchdog the industry.

“Giant fracking companies were given a free pass by unprepared agencies, and the public was harmed, plain and simple,” Shapiro said during a press conference.

In the weeks preceding the report, Shapiro brought criminal charges against two natural gas companies — Range Resources in southwestern Pennsylvania, and Cabot Oil and Gas in northeastern Pennsylvania. He promised more action in the future.

The 235-page report’s findings on health concerns are not new. They instead represent an official distillation of concerns advocates have raised for the last decade.

But the report’s analysis of the regulatory response by the state Department of Environmental Protection and Department of Health drew pushback from the agencies and Gov. Tom Wolf’s office.

In a legal memo responding to the report, DEP called the grand jury’s findings “inaccurate and incomplete” and “fails as an expose” of the agency’s conduct. 

Taken as whole, the department concluded that the grand jury report “carelessly [erodes] the citizens’ trust and confidence in their government.”

Frack science

The report details incidents stretching back for more than a decade, and includes information gleaned from interviews with 70 households, dozens of current and former state employees, and internal documents.

In particular, the report focuses on fracking, or drilling a hole thousands of feet into the earth, before shooting a high pressure mixture of water and chemicals underground to break up rock and release natural gas.

The process has led to a natural gas boom in the commonwealth. Pennsylvania is now the second largest natural gas producer in the United States, behind Texas.

The glut of gas had led to a drop in energy prices, and driven political fights in Pennsylvania over pipelines and plastics.

The most immediate impact that the grand jury analyzed was health concerns. In interviews, multiple families close to wells or other industrial sites described unexplained rashes, sudden nosebleeds, and respiratory issues, which the report linked to both air and water pollution from the natural gas industry.

Environmental activists have long raised similar health concerns about  the industry. Studies had already linked proximity to natural gas wells to respiratory issues and low birth weights, while identifying chemicals with “carcinogenic potential” in fracking fluids.

But health experts, including Pennsylvania’s own health department, have cautioned that the link is not scientifically certain.

In a statement, Wenonah Haute, executive director of the environmental group Food & Water Action, said that the report’s findings were stark but that “these are things we have known for over a decade.”

Other environmental groups, such as PennFuture, called the reports’ call for action, focused on tighter industry regulations, “commonsense,” and pushed for further accountability.

But the main trade group representing unconventional drillers, as fracking is referred to industry parlance, the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, argued that the state’s current regulations instead are a model for other states.

“For anyone to suggest that we are not protecting our environment and public health while responsibly and safely producing clean and abundant American natural gas should better understand the facts and science behind natural gas energy development,” the coalition’s president, David Spigelmyer, said in a statement.

Shapiro, a Democrat, issued a prebuttal during his remarks Thursday morning, saying “respectfully, that’s all bogus.”

Undue deference

It wasn’t just the industry at odds with the report, however. Wolf’s office argued against the report’s findings that state regulatory agencies have failed to protect citizens from pollution.

The grand jury alleges that state regulators were improperly trained in the ins and outs of fracking, and applied out of date standards to improperly gather and analyze water samples near fracking sites.

Their response to complaints was also lacking, the report says. The department did not inform neighbors if it discovered contaminated water, the report says. And in one situation, a state employee threatened to prosecute a citizen for reporting a potential spill for filing a false report. 

“We believe that many DEP employees were doing the best job possible with the limited resources they had,” the report reads. “We also believe there were others who appeared to show undue deference to the fracking industry, and undue indifference to citizens with serious complaints about appalling effects they were suffering.”

None of the specific allegations include dates, but the report includes interviews dating back to at least Republican Gov. Tom Corbett’s term, from 2011 to 2015. Other interviews cite Wolf-era policies, like his gift ban.

In his remarks, Shapiro credited the administration for making some positive changes, but did not absolve it of any wrongdoing.

In an emailed statement, Lyndsay Kensinger, spokesperson for Wolf, said that the state’s regulators “inherited a flawed ideological approach to regulation of unconventional oil and gas development” from the Corbett administration, “which promoted the rapid expansion of natural gas development and profit above these other priorities.”

She also pointed to increased inspections and record fines against oil and gas companies as proof of the administration’s commitment to protecting the environment. 

The report also focused on a fracking health complaint database, a joint project between the Department of Health and DEP.

Such a database had been established under Corbett, but was undermined by internal policies. Under Wolf, the database had renewed use, but as of last fall, includes just 160 complaints.

Pa. Health department has collected just 160 complaints on oil and gas production in nearly a decade

The grand jury report found that agencies under Wolf had failed to cooperate on the database, which subsequently has delayed state action on fracking.

“Our government made no effort to gather the data, and points to the lack of data as a reason for not concluding there is a problem,” the report states.

In their own response, the Health Department defended its methodology as scientifically sound, and pointed to plans to spend $1 million a year for the next three years studying the health effects of fracking.

Next steps

Taking the report as a whole, Food and Water Action’s Haute said the document laid out an “abject failure of Pennsylvania officials and lawmakers to protect clean water and public health.”

“That failure cannot be corrected by new half-measure regulations that attempt to improve a lawless and reckless industry,” she said.

Instead, Haute called for Wolf to make an immediate move to suspend, and then end, fracking permanently. 

The report made no such recommendation, instead calling for tighter regulations, the disclosure of all chemicals used to drill and frack gas, and increasing the minimum distance between wells and homes from 500 to 2,500 feet.

The report also suggested a waiting period for regulatory officials who take jobs in the industry, and referring more environmental crimes to the attorney general. 

Read the full report below.

FINAL Fracking Report w.responses With Page Number V2 by jmicek on Scribd