Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Audit Points out Dep's Flaws in Oil, Gas Oversight Report Says Agency Is 'Underfunded, Understaffed'

Newspaper article Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Pittsburgh, PA)

Audit Points out Dep's Flaws in Oil, Gas Oversight Report Says Agency Is 'Underfunded, Understaffed'

Article excerpt

HARRISBURG - Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a withering review Tuesday of the Department of Environmental Protection's oversight of the shale gas industry and the regulatory agency's practices for responding to citizens' complaints that drilling has affected their drinking water.

The long-promised performance audit details the agency's shortcomings, including failing to consistently issue enforcement orders to drilling companies after regulators determined that gas operations had damaged water supplies, even though the state's oil and gas law requires it.

Mr. DePasquale said during a news conference that although DEP merits criticism for its performance, the dedication of DEP's employees to protecting the environment is not in question.

"DEP needs assistance," he wrote in a letter to Gov. Tom Corbett that accompanies the audit. "It is underfunded, understaffed, and does not have the infrastructure in place to meet the continuing demands placed upon the agency by expanded shale gas development."

The report lists eight areas in which DEP fell short of its obligations during the study period between Jan. 1, 2009, and Dec. 31, 2012, including the inconsistent water supply replacement orders: The agency had unclear or untimely communication with citizens regarding potential water contamination, used an ineffective complaint tracking system, maintained cumbersome records of shale gas well inspections, relied on a disjointed system of forms and industry self-reporting for tracking shale waste, and left gaps in the collection and online presentation of compliance information.

The audit makes 29 recommendations, 18 of which Mr. DePasquale said "cost practically no money" to implement.

DEP disagreed with all of the audit's findings but agreed or had a neutral opinion about 22 of its recommendations.

In DEP's response to the audit included in the report, Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo wrote that "to a great extent, the audit report reflects how the Oil and Gas Program formerly operated, not how the program currently functions."

Many of the audit's recommendations have already been implemented or are being considered, he added, but some of the audit's findings misinterpret the law or DEP's systems.

Pennsylvania's oil and gas law requires DEP to take enforcement action against drillers who refuse to restore or replace damaged water supplies, DEP said in its response, but companies often restore water supplies voluntarily before official orders are necessary.

The auditors disagreed with this collaborative approach, writing that it "raises concerns that DEP chooses to play the role of a mediator instead of a regulator," and gives the impression, whether real or not, that companies can "make a deal" and avoid an enforcement action on their record. …

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