Josh Shapiro

Trista Thurston/Observer-Reporter

State Attorney General Josh Shapiro during 2019 visit to the Observer-Reporter

Josh Shapiro, attorney general of Pennsylvania, lowered the boom on the fracking boom Thursday morning.

“Pennsylvanians have constitutional rights to clean air and clean water,” he said during a livestreamed news conference from Harrisburg.

Shapiro announced the findings and recommendations of a two-year grand jury investigation of the shale gas industry. The panel gathered 287 hours of testimony for the report, which included input on air and water issues and testimony from people who lived near drilling sites and said their health was affected.

The 243-page report chronicled failure by government agencies to properly oversee the unconventional oil and gas industry and to protect residents from risks, going back to when hydraulic fracturing – fracking – began in the Keystone State about a decade and a half ago.

“The report details how our laws and our agencies were unprepared for this industry,” Shapiro said. “This report is about preventing the failures of our past from continuing into our future.”

The report cited the state Department of Environmental Protection and state Department of Health for failures to do their due diligence in protecting the public. The grand jury, according to Shapiro, found “giant fracking companies were given a free pass by unprepared agencies and the public was harmed.”

DEP responded with a statement saying, “Gov. Tom Wolf shares the attorney general’s commitment to upholding Pennsylvania’s constitutional promise of clean air, pure water and to protecting public health. The Wolf administration inherited a flawed ideological approach to regulation of unconventional oil and gas development that was forced on the departments of Environmental Protection and Health by the (Tom) Corbett administration, which promoted the rapid expansion of natural gas development and profit above these other priorities.

“The administration, acting through DEP and DOH, has taken steps from its first days in office to meet this commitment, implementing new environmental regulations, fighting for a reasonable severance tax on natural gas, increasing inspections of well sites, pipelines and other natural gas facilities, and promoting transparency and science-based decision-making on the health impacts of natural gas development.”

Shapiro said the report led to criminal charges several weeks ago against two drilling companies, Range Resources and Cabot Oil & Gas. Range, which has regional headquarters in Southpointe, pled no contest two weeks ago to charges related to leaks and contamination at natural gas wells in Washington County.

Range issued a statement in response to the report, saying: “Operating safely is Range Resources’ top priority. It’s a responsibility we take very seriously and one that drives us to continuously innovate and improve upon our technologies and best practices.

“We have never compromised the health and well-being of our employees, contractors and community. We are proud that our employees, many of whom were born and raised in Western Pennsylvania, work in very close partnership with our communities to develop natural gas in Washington County.”

Shapiro said his office has established a hotline on which residents can report suspected oil and gas drilling issues. Call 507-904-2643 or email fracking@attorneygeneral.gov.

The grand jury report provided eight recommendations to limit health risks and improve industry oversight statewide:

  • Pushing back no-drill zones from the required 500 feet to 2,500 feet;
  • Requiring fracking firms to publicly disclose all chemicals used in drilling and hydraulic fracturing before they are used on site;
  • Requiring the regulation of gathering lines that transport unconventional gas hundreds of miles;
  • Adding up all sources of air pollution in a given area to accurately assess air quality;
  • Requiring safer transport of contaminated waste created from fracking sites;
  • Conducting a comprehensive health response to the effects of living near fracking sites;
  • Limiting the ability of DEP employees to be employed in the private sector immediately after leaving DEP;
  • Giving Shapiro’s office original criminal jurisdiction over unconventional oil and gas companies.

“Our government has a duty to set, and enforce, ground rules that protect public health and safety,” Shapiro said. “We are here to prevent big corporations and the powerful industries from harming our communities or running over the rights of citizens.”

Officials of two environmental advocacy groups issued statements in response to the report.

“PennFuture strongly supports the common-sense recommendations made today by the grand jury, and we are hopeful these suggestions will be implemented in an effort to hold the failing fracked gas industry accountable,” said Jacquelyn Bonomo, president and chief executive officer. “Ultimately, Pennsylvania needs to reckon with a basic fact: We cannot continue to be taken advantage of by the fossil fuel industry, and state leaders need to hold the industry responsible while moving our economy aggressively away to more sustainable, family-sustaining industries.”

Mark Szybist, senior attorney at Natural Resources Defense Council, said: “The veil is finally being pulled back on the fracking industry’s careless, all-too-often illegal actions. The attorney general’s report confirms that the state’s existing regulations don’t do enough to protect Pennsylvanians living near fracking sites or the land and water resources they depend on. It’s a travesty that Pennsylvanians have had to suffer the consequences of lax protections for so long.”

Business Writer

Rick Shrum joined the Observer-Reporter as a reporter in 2012, after serving as a section editor, sports reporter and copy editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rick has won eight individual writing awards, including two Golden Quills.

See what people are talking about at The Community Table!

Thank you for reading!

Please purchase a subscription to continue reading. If you have a subscription, please Log In.