New Castle News

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May 27, 2013

Mitchel Olszak: State records reveal water problems with gas well drilling

NEW CASTLE — The drilling of shale gas in Lawrence County and the rest of Pennsylvania holds great promise.

It also holds the potential for harm.

Depending on who you ask, health and environmental concerns about shale gas drilling are either very real or very overblown. Folks in the industry say that while there are always certain risks with drilling, they are minor.

Critics, however, claim otherwise. And a report released last week by the Scranton Times-Tribune gives them new ammunition.

That report, based on records obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, found that the water supplies of 161 properties across the commonwealth had been adversely affected by drilling.

The types of problems varied. In some cases, property owners complained about reduced water flow after drilling took place. In other instances, the drilling process polluted wells or other water sources.

In about 90 circumstances, water supplies were harmed when faulty well casings allowed gas to enter water wells.

Now, it should be noted that not all of these occurrences involved shale drilling. Conventional gas wells also present pollution risks. But the Times-Tribune said its examination showed more problems with the advent of shale activities in the commonwealth.

I suppose you can look at this information in a variety of ways. Some of the problems cited in the reports were temporary in nature. And if you consider all of Pennsylvania, perhaps problems at 161 properties isn’t so bad.

But if you’re one of those 161 property owners, you might have a different view.

Whether the harm suffered is outweighed by the broad benefits of vastly expanded access to natural gas is a legitimate matter for public debate. Any form of energy production — even one typically viewed as “green” — carries risk. And when you compare the hazards of shale drilling with mountaintop coal mining or deep sea oil drilling, maybe its dangers fade in comparison.

Yet there is an aspect of the Times-Tribune report that I found disturbing. This is a story the paper has been working on since 2011, when it first asked the DEP for copies of its records.

However, the DEP fought the paper and other news organizations, arguing it does not count how many letters it sends out regarding such problems with drilling. Under Pennsylvania’s open records law, government agencies are not required to release records if they don’t keep them in the form that’s being requested.

My question: Why wouldn’t the DEP keep tabs on such problems? This is information that ought to be readily available. When it’s not, citizens have reason to be suspicious of an agency that’s supposed to be protecting their interests.

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