A report by the PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center shows that, over the past four years, gas operators accumulated 3,355 violations of environmental laws. [PDF] The study was compiled using information from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
Erika Staaf, clean water advocate with PennEnvironment, claims more than 70 percent of the violations were possibly a direct threat to the environment.
"Over the last four years, Marcellus Shale gas drillers have demonstrated a track record of pollution that has contaminated our water. It has destroyed public lands. It's threatened public health," said Staaf. "And absent of strong state safeguards for air, water, and land, this pattern of pollution is set to continue."
Staaf said the top five companies for total violations were Cabot Oil and Gas Corp with 412, Chesapeake Energy Corp. (393), Chief Oil and Gas, LLC (313), Talisman Energy USA, Inc. (303) and East Resources, Inc. (170)
The DEP fined Chesapeake Energy $565,000 for three separate incidents in Potter and Bradford counties in which regulators found the company in violation of rules protecting streams and wetlands.
Staaf said she believes the numbers in the report are a conservative view of violations because of limited DEP enforcement staff.
George Stark is the Director of External Affairs for Cabot Oil and Gas Corp, which has all of its wells in Susquehanna County. He disagrees that the DEP needs more inspectors.
"Staffing has actually increased with the oversight and review of the industry by the department," said Stark. "They definitely have had more inspectors out in the field doing their job."
Stark said the company investigates every violation internally and brings in third parties when they feel they need a situation assessed in ways they cannot. He said a lot of the violations are administrative.
"Normally, we're striving to ensure that we have no violations. But I know that there are times in which paperwork's not done properly, signage isn't posted correctly, and things of that nature," Stark said.
However, in December 2010, Cabot settled with the DEP and 19 families whose water became tainted through gas drilling and fracking. The settlement totaled $4.1 million dollars.
Staaf said PennEnvironment is recommending several policy changes to stop the large number of violations.
- Implementing mandatory minimum penalties for polluters to provide stronger incentive to comply with the law.
- Updating and increasing the bonding requirements for gas drillers to cover the cost of a well.
- Putting areas that supply drinking water, wildlife habitats, and state forests off-limits to drilling.
- Increased funding to the DEP to ensure proper enforcement of laws.
She said PennEnvironment is asking state leaders to stop shale gas extraction until companies change their practices and prove shale gas extraction is safe.