Pennsylvania Grand Jury Faults State Officials for Lax Fracking Oversight

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said Republican and Democratic administrations alike had failed to probe health risks related to air and water pollution.

Jun 26, 2020
In a report on Thursday, a special state investigative grand jury said Pennsylvania agencies failed to protect citizens from adverse health effects of fracking in the state. Credit: Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

In a report on Thursday, a special state investigative grand jury said Pennsylvania agencies failed to protect citizens from adverse health effects of fracking in the state. Credit: Pennsylvania Office of the Attorney General

As the fracking boom transformed Pennsylvania over the past decade, the state's environmental and health agencies systematically failed to protect the state's citizens from the risks of the operations, a special state investigative grand jury said in a report released Thursday.

The 243-page report, the result of a two-year investigation by the office of state Attorney General Josh Shapiro, paints a chilling picture of the impact of Pennsylvania's rise as the nation's No. 2 natural gas producer, alleging insufficient oversight by Democratic and Republican administrations alike. 

The report describes children with "sudden, intense nosebleeds," neighbors whose skin would break out in "frack rash," and farm animals giving birth to deformed offspring—all occurring in the vicinity of oil and gas industry activity. 

"There are simply too many people who have suffered similar harms in communities throughout Pennsylvania where fracking occurs to disregard the damage caused by this industry's operations," the report said. 

State officials failed to set and enforce rules to protect communities, and did not mobilize a response to the new health risks from air and water pollution, the report concluded.

"Through multiple administrations, they failed," said Shapiro, who, like Gov. Tom Wolf, is a Democrat elected statewide. 

In Pennsylvania, the attorney general's office has authority to empanel special citizen grand juries to investigate systemic problems or institutional corruption. The reports can lead to prosecutions or reform, as happened last year after a grand jury report on sexual abuse over several decades by more than 300 priests in the state.

Shapiro's office has already launched criminal probes of fracking companies, including Range Resources of Fort Worth, Texas, one of the pioneers of fracking in Pennsylvania. The company pleaded no contest earlier this month to charges of negligent oversight of its well sites in the southwestern corner of the state.

In the report released Thursday, the grand jury said that the purpose of its investigation was to document the impacts of an industry that will affect the state for decades. 

"We are not 'anti'-fracking,'" the report said.  "We are aware that unconventional drilling brings significant economic benefits. But if the activity is to be permitted, it still must be regulated appropriately, in ways that prevent reckless harms. We believe that our government often ignored the costs to the environment and to the health and safety of the citizens of the Commonwealth, in a rush to reap the benefits of this industry." 

The natural gas industry characterized the report as misleading and unfair. 

"Our industry's long and clear proactive and collaborative approach to ensuring Pennsylvania's regulations encourage safety is unfortunately not reflected in this report, which we are closely reviewing," the Marcellus Shale Coalition said in a statement.  

The coalition noted that since an overhaul of state oil and gas law in 2012, companies have been required to disclose fracking chemicals.

The grand jury cited those same chemical disclosure rules as an example of the lax oversight. Companies are only required to disclose chemicals used in the fracturing of shale rock to release gas, not in the drilling process. 

They do not have to report until fracking a well has been completed, and there are exceptions for trade secrets. "Keeping these proprietary chemicals secret leaves firefighters and Hazmat teams incapable of effectively or safely responding to emergencies at unconventional gas sites," the grand jury said. "Communities, industry employees, and others who find themselves in close proximity are likewise kept in the dark. This risk is unacceptable. Only full public disclosure is sufficient."

Responses from Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Resources and Department of Health were included in the report. Officials of the agencies, appointees of Democratic Gov. Wolf, noted steps they had taken to tighten oversight of the industry; they said many of the problems described in the report occurred under the previous administration of Republican Gov. Tom Corbett, between 2011 and 2015.

But the grand jury report sharply criticized current officials at the Health Department for failing to adequately investigate the health impacts of fracking-related pollution.

"We believe the Department is still in a state of denial," the report said, noting that the agency insisted that the health risks of fracking had not been proven. "You can't prove what you don't examine, and DOH has gone out of its way in the past not to look at connections between fracking and health effects," the report said.

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