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Grand jury report criticizes oversight of fracking

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.”

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Washington County records eight new cases of coronavirus

Washington County’s COVID-19 case count inched up to 184 as eight new cases of the disease were reported Thursday by the Pennsylvania Department of Health.

Greene County remained at 35 cases, where it has been for days, while Allegheny County logged 37 additional cases, bringing its total to 2,284.

The state health department also announced that 39 additional deaths are being attributed to the deadly pathogen. There have been 6,557 deaths in the commonwealth due to the coronavirus.

Cases have been skyrocketing in Sun Belt states like Florida and Arizona, and Dr. Rachel Levine, Pennsylvania’s secretary of health, said the state “has been a model for the country on how to reopen effectively, using a careful, measured approach.”

Levine emphasized that wearing a mask, frequently washing hands and maintaining social distancing were critically important to keep infection rates down.

Cool by the pool

Many area residents visited Canonsburg’s Town Park pool Thursday afternoon to enjoy the sunny weather and a refreshing dip in the water.

Some states pause reopening as virus cases near record high

NEW YORK (AP) — The coronavirus crisis deepened in Arizona on Thursday, and the governor of Texas began to backtrack after making one of the most aggressive pushes in the nation to reopen, as the daily number of confirmed cases across the U.S. closed in on the peak reached during the dark days of late April.

While greatly expanded testing probably accounts for some of the increase, experts say other measures indicate the virus is making a comeback. Daily deaths, hospitalizations and the percentage of tests that are coming back positive also have been rising over the past few weeks in parts of the country, mostly in the South and West.

In Arizona, 23% of tests conducted over the past seven days have been positive, nearly triple the national average, and a record 415 patients were on ventilators. Mississippi saw its daily count of confirmed cases reach record highs twice this week.

“It's not a joke. Really bad things are going to happen,” said Dr. Thomas Dobbs, Mississippi's health officer.

Republican Gov. Greg Abbott of Texas put off lifting any more restrictions and reimposed a ban on elective surgeries in some places to preserve hospital space after the number of patients statewide more than doubled in two weeks. Republican Gov. Doug Ducey of Arizona also said further efforts to reopen are on hold as cases surge. Sandwiched between the two, New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, worried about rising numbers and the risks posed by her neighbors, declaring, “We’re on hold.”

“The last thing we want to do as a state is go backwards and close down businesses,” Abbott said.

The U.S. reported 34,500 COVID-19 cases Wednesday, slightly fewer than the day before but still near the high of 36,400 reached April 24, according to a count kept by Johns Hopkins University. The daily average has climbed by more than 50% over the past two weeks, an Associated Press analysis found. The true numbers are probably much higher because of limited testing and other factors.

Whether the rise in cases translates into an equally dire surge in deaths across the U.S. will depend on a number of factors, experts said, most crucially whether government officials make the right decisions. Deaths per day nationwide are around 600 after peaking at about 2,200 in mid-April.

“It is possible, if we play our cards badly and make a lot of mistakes, to get back to that level. But if we are smart, there’s no reason to get to 2,200 deaths a day,” said Dr. Ashish Jha, director of Harvard’s Global Health Institute.

The nation's daily death toll has actually dropped markedly over the past few weeks even as cases climbed, a phenomenon experts said may reflect the advent of treatments, better efforts to prevent infections at nursing homes and a rising proportion of cases among younger people, who are more likely than their elders to survive a bout with COVID-19.

“This is still serious,” said Dr. Robert Redfield, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, but “we’re in a different situation today than we were in March or April.”

Several states set single-day case records this week, including Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas and Oklahoma. Florida reported over 5,000 new cases for a second day in a row.

Mississippi's Dobbs blamed a failure to wear masks and observe other social-distancing practices.

“I’m afraid it’s going to take some kind of catastrophe for people to pay attention,” he said. “We are giving away those hard-fought gains for silly stuff.”

Tom Rohlk, a 62-year-old grocery store worker from Overland Park, Kansas, complained that young people sometimes act as if they don't care: “It seems like it’s time to party.”

The U.S. has greatly ramped up testing in the past few months, and it is now presumably finding many less-serious cases that would have gone undetected earlier in the outbreak, when testing was limited and often focused on sicker people.

But there are other more clear-cut warning signs, including a rising number of deaths per day in states such as Arizona and Alabama.

The numbers “continue to go in the wrong direction,” Ducey said. “We can expect our numbers will be worse next week and the week after.”

The number of confirmed infections, in itself, is a poor measure of the outbreak. CDC officials, relying on blood tests, estimated Thursday that 20 million Americans have been infected. That is about 6% percent of the population and roughly 10 times the 2.3 million confirmed cases.

Officials have long known that many cases have been missed because of testing gaps and a lack of symptoms in some infected people.

Worldwide, over 9.5 million people have been confirmed infected, and nearly a half-million have died, including over 124,000 in the U.S., the world's highest toll, by Johns Hopkins’ count.

While some states impose new restrictions or pause their reopenings, some businesses also are backing off. Disney delayed its mid-July reopening of Disneyland.

As politicians try to strike a balance between public health and the economy, the government reported that the number of Americans applying for unemployment benefits last week declined slightly to 1.48 million, indicating layoffs are slowing but still painfully high.

Elsewhere around the world, Paris' Eiffel Tower reopened to visitors after its longest peacetime closure: 104 days.

With hospitals overwhelmed in New Delhi, Indian troops provided care in railroad cars converted to medical wards.


Johnson reported from Washington state. Associated Press journalists around the world contributed to this report.


Follow AP coverage of the virus outbreak at https://apnews.com/VirusOutbreak and https://apnews.com/UnderstandingtheOutbreak.