Guess what was found in Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection’s (DEP) filing cabinets after gas operators drilled 10,027 fracking wells over the last 12 years? Only 9,942 citizen-reported fracking complaints. And forty-four percent of those are drinking water-related. Pennsylvania’s DEP finally released the complaints to Public Herald, an investigative journalism nonprofit. There’s much to learn from Pennsylvania’s now-public 9,942 fracking complaints as legislators decide to frack or not to frack in Western Maryland.
A year ago, we reported that Pennsylvania’s drinking water contamination due to fracking appeared to be much higher than previously reported. To date, Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) reports only 284 positive water contaminations for the 10,027 fracking wells drilled. That three percent figure seems pretty low.
What hasn’t set right with many is that Pennsylvania’s official water contamination rate is starkly different than what citizens report on-the-ground. Thousands of news stories, YouTube videos, and social media posts report an entirely different story of serious fracking water issues, rampant air pollution, land destruction and negative health issues.
In rural communities, many homes rely on private water wells, not municipally-supplied water. The new natural gas drilling process called fracking drills through surface water aquifers to access natural gas found miles underground in shale rock basins.
The now-public 9,942 PA fracking complaints reveal:
1. The volume of citizen complaints is alarming, shocking even. For every fracking well drilled, one homeowner, business or gas operator called in an issue.
2. Water well complaints make up 44 percent of DEP complaints. The DEP is the”911 dispatch” center for citizen oil and gas issues. Ninety-six percent of these water complaints were dismissed. The current number of water complaints is higher as the DEP put methane migration and other water issues under different complaint categories; those cases are additional to the 4,108 reported so far.
3. Water contamination is indeed widespread and systemic: Total complaints and water complaints are scattered throughout Pennsylvania’s fracking fields and aren’t concentrated in one area.
4. Complaint ratios worsen over time: As fracking grew in Pennsylvania, gas operators should have reduced the negative impacts to land, air, and water over time. This data suggests that as fracking continues, complaint ratios increase.
Because this citizen-complaint data was never studied year-over-year, the opportunities to develop best practices, share learning, conduct scientific studies and possibly reduce future harm were eliminated. Sadly, Pennsylvania DEP and Governor Wolf were touting that fracking is safer by reporting lower violations. DEP failed to ever report the real volume of citizen complaints.
Why was this complaint data never made public? Public Herald is reporting a series of articles analyzing the DEP’s 12-year suppression of citizen fracking complaint data.
This newly-discovered complaint data calls into question the EPA’s fracking water study. After the EPA’s original “fracking is safe” preliminary conclusion, the final report said there could be water issues in certain situations. Did the EPA ever see these 9,942 citizen complaints? Adding to this mess, several thousand complaint records are missing. Over three years, Public Herald scanned 6,981 paper complaints before the DEP emailed the nonprofit 9,942 complaints. What happened to the almost 3,000 complaint records?
This data would have been invaluable to scientist, health professionals, citizens and communities to know, study, plan and adapt. How many people got sick even though authorities knew water wells were getting contaminated? Dr. Stolz explains, “Suppressed information from Pennsylvania regulators makes it very difficult to know the truth about these incidents,” he said.
What happened to the 3,824 citizens who called in, and their water complaint was dismissed? The DEP determined that 93 percent of the fracking water complaints were not caused by nearby gas operations. Were they bogus calls? “You’re telling me that there are thousands of people in Pennsylvania that want to fool the DEP? I can’t accept that,” said Dr. John F. Stolz to Public Herald. Dr. Stolz is a Professor of Biology at Duquesne University, and through his Center for Environmental Research and Education has been providing free water tests for citizens who claim water damage.
What will the future look like? If there is a minimum level of inherent damage involved with fracking, as the data suggests, what will fracking look like with 20,000 fracking wells in a region? What will happen to Western Maryland’s tourism and rural landscape?