Drilling Letter Policy Altered

Pa. water problem notifications now will be from the state level

Wheeling Intelligencer
16 October 2012

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection has changed its policy for water pollution cases that may be related to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling.

Department administrators in Harrisburg now decide whether residential water users should receive letters notifying them about problems. In the past, field offices made that decision.

The policy was not publicly announced and was distributed in an internal department e-mail on Sept. 14.

A former department official said the policy baffles him.

George Jugovic Jr., president of the environmental group PennFuture, said the letters are "supposed to be a scientific decision based on water test results and the law."

He questioned whether top officials in Harrisburg have the experience to analyze tests.

A decision not to send a pollution determination letter could save drilling companies from having to pay for groundwater remediation, water treatment or water replacement costs when a dispute with a property owner arises.

Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Kevin Sunday told the paper that the agency made the policy change as a result of an Environmental Hearing Board ruling that found such letters are an appealable action that deserves top-level review.

Sunday also said the department "takes very strong action in cases where oil and gas drilling causes methane migration."

A former department secretary also questioned the change.

John Hanger, Department of Environmental Protection secretary during the Rendell administration, said the agency bears the burden of justifying why such a change was made to a science-based process that reported water test results "honestly and independently and professionally."

"The process wasn't broken. There was no abuse. The field staff is professional and careful and does a good job," Hanger said. "These determination letters should be based on good science."

Hanger added that there are no cases yet to indicate that there are problems with the new policy.