Hidden Data Suggests Fracking Created Widespread, Systemic Impact in Pennsylvania

Home / Invisible Hand / Hidden Data Suggests Fracking Created Widespread, Systemic Impact in Pennsylvania

Trends Show Impacts Are Getting Worse

by Melissa A. Troutman, Sierra Shamer and Joshua B. Pribanic for Public Herald

January 23, 2017   |   Project: INVISIBLE HAND

After a three-year investigation in Pennsylvania, Public Herald has uncovered evidence of widespread and systemic impacts related to “fracking,” a controversial oil and gas technology.

Ending over a decade of suppression by the state, this evidence is now available to the public for the first time.

In Pennsylvania, the power over fracking rests in the hands of the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). When residents observe a problem, they call the Department to report it. That call gets recorded as a “complaint” as required by Title 58 § 3218 of the state’s oil and gas act.

A citizen complaint record from Amwell Township, Washington County, PA reported to the Pennsylvania Dept. of Environmental Protection on Nov. 28, 2010.

In 2011, Public Herald’s first file request to DEP for complaints never produced a single document, and we learned that complaints were being held as ‘confidential.’ When asked why, an attorney from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office explained that Deputy Secretary Scott Perry didn’t want complaints to ‘cause alarm.’”

After pushing through DEP’s resistance to disclose these records, our team was able to conduct its first file review for complaints in the spring of 2013. Three years later, after more than 50 file reviews, Public Herald has scanned records for 6,819 complaint cases.

Today, due to this work, anyone can access these cases via the Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Complaint Map.

The Pennsylvania Oil & Gas Complaint Map by Public Herald & FracTracker Alliance shows the density of citizen complaints reported to the Department of Environmental Protection from 2004 – 2016. The widespread dispersal of complaints matches the shape of the Marcellus Shale formation. Clicking a township reveals a database of complaints where viewers can download files. © Public Herald

This map shows how citizen complaints are dispersed across counties where shale gas drilling has occurred. We shared our dataset with several scientists, including Dr. Anthony Ingraffea, an oil and gas engineering expert from Cornell University whose work on fracking is published in multiple peer-reviewed papers.

“It’s not like all the bad stuff is happening up in the northeast. Pennsylvania is pretty widespread, and what the data shows, quite clearly, is that impact has been systemic.”

At the end of our reviews, we submitted a final Right-to-Know request for the DEP database of all citizen complaints. On December 30, 2016, DEP responded in an email with a new list revealing a statewide total of 9,442 complaints from 2004 through November 29, 2016.

The total number of complaints in the databases ended up being thousands more than anyone on our team had anticipated.

When we compared the annual number of complaints in Pennsylvania to unconventional shale gas development – a.k.a. “fracking” — it revealed a strong relationship.

Annual citizen complaints reported to PA DEP compared to the annual number of new unconventional oil and gas wells. © Public Herald

If you include conventional wells as a variable, the rise of impacts clearly increases with the rise of fracking development.

This graph shows the number of annual conventional and unconventional wells drilled in PA from 2004-2016. It also displays the number of complaints registered by DEP each year, and the subset of those complaints categorized as “water” supplies. “Unconventional wells” are horizontal, hydraulically “fracked” wells to access shale gas. “Conventional wells” are traditional vertical gas wells typically drilled at shallower depths, requiring less chemical additives and less pressure. © Public Herald

The Rise of Fracking & Systemic Impact

In the graph above, Dr. Ingraffea identified the years 2004 and 2005 as “baseline” or “what things were like in Pennsylvania before shale gas fracking really got started.”

During that time, Ingraffea calculated that there was one complaint for every ten conventional wells drilled – then things clearly changed.

“When transitioning to unconventional wells [there] is typically one complaint per well. Even though the industry has had over a decade to learn its lessons and figure out how to get things right, in the last few years the number [has increased to] two complaints for every well drilled.”

This increase in complaints per unconventional well is unexpected, given the recent decrease in drilling activity throughout the state. For Ingraffea, the data illustrates that the situation is getting worse by the year.

“If you drill a shale gas well in Pennsylvania today…the data says you are more likely to get a complaint now than in 2010.”

In fact, when Governor Tom Wolf took office in 2015, after campaigning on the promise to make fracking “safe,” the number of complaints exceeded the number of new shale gas wells for the first time since 2009.

Dr. John Stolz of Duquesne University in Pittsburgh is another scientist at the forefront of this issue who has conducted independent water investigations of areas impacted by fracking since 2010.

After reviewing this new data, Dr. Stolz. said, “Just looking at the raw numbers, you can say that unconventional wells, for whatever reason, generate more complaints per well. That’s something the DEP should be concerned about.”

Water Supply Complaints

Of the complaint total, 4,108 cases are categorized by DEP as “water supply” complaints. However, this is much lower than the actual number involving drinking water supplies. Hundreds of additional cases are categorized by DEP as gas migration, spill response, pollution, or leaking wells which can include impacts to water.

Throughout Pennsylvania, DEP has determined that only 284 water supplies have ever been impacted by oil and gas operations in the state. This means that DEP considers 94% of drinking water complaints to be completely unrelated to oil and gas.

“You’re telling me that there are thousands of people [who say their water was impacted by oil and gas] in Pennsylvania that want to fool the DEP? I can’t accept that,” said Dr. Stolz.

According to Ingraffea, “This goes to the very heart of the meaning of this data – are the complaints pie in the sky, crying wolf…or are they real?”

EPA’s National Study

“The question on a lot of people’s minds, including myself, is – ‘Does unconventional extraction pose a threat to drinking water?’ If you suppress [complaint] information, it’s very difficult to make a case.” – Dr. John Stolz

The United States Environmental Protection Agency concluded a five-year study in 2015 that stated fracking had no “widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water supplies.”

But less than a year later, the EPA’s own Science Advisory Board (SAB) called them out. In an August 2016 review, the SAB stated that EPA did not have the evidence to make such a  conclusion.

This forced the EPA to retract their “widespread” and “systemic” claims in December 2016. In their final report, the agency states that fracking can cause water contamination, but they fail to make a broader conclusion citing insufficient data.

EPA used several sources of data from DEP, including the Department’s oil and gas compliance database of inspections and violations. In a call with Public Herald, EPA’s Jeff Frithsen could neither confirm nor deny whether the Agency reviewed any DEP complaint data for its study.

This isn’t the first time EPA has studied the relationship between fracking and drinking water pollution. In fact, the Agency has linked fracking to drinking water contamination as far back as 1987 when “fracking fluids migrated” into a West Virginia water supply.

When a person’s water becomes contaminated, the issue isn’t whether impacts from fracking are “widespread” or “systemic.” The issue is far more tangible – you’ve lost your water.

‘People Are Not Crazy’

Filing a complaint is not rewarding or easy. Calling Pennsylvania DEP begins a process that most often leaves a resident with ongoing pollution problems and feelings of hopelessness.

Janet McIntyre is a resident of the Woodlands, a neighborhood in Connoquenessing Township, Butler County. After shale gas wells were constructed nearby, residents in the Woodlands began experiencing water problems. DEP investigated these complaints, but determined that they were not related to oil and gas activity.

Janet and her husband, along with 50 of their neighbors, have relied on donated, bottled water ever since – six years and counting.

According to Janet, when she asked how to appeal DEP’s “non-impact” determination, Deputy Secretary of Oil and Gas Scott Perry told her that it was impossible because the agency acts as “both judge and jury.”

But later, Janet learned that the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board considers no action of the DEP final until an adversely impacted person has had the opportunity to appeal the action.

Perry has also publicly dismissed legitimate concerns about fracking’s effects on drinking water by insinuating that people are looking for something that’s not real.

“I feel like I’m trying to convince the public that Sasquatch doesn’t exist,” said Perry at an industry convention in 2011.

Desperate for information, Janet asked DEP for her complaint file. DEP failed to provide it to her. Fortunately for Janet, it was among the 271 complaints Public Herald had scanned for Butler County.

Dr. Stolz has conducted a case study of the Woodlands since 2011, and in all his research, he never found residents’ complaints in any of the files that DEP provided to him.

“A big part of the problem is that [officials] don’t take these complaints seriously,” Stolz said. “But when you go out and you meet people…you realize that this is for real. And until that attitude changes in Harrisburg, we’re going to continue seeing these complaints swept under the table.”

Transparency: What Does DEP Disclose?

In their 2015 annual report, DEP described a plan to create a “Water Supply Complaint Tracking System.”

In late 2016, DEP added an interactive report of resolved drinking water complaints to their website. DEP did not respond to questions about exactly when this report was added, though it coincided with Public Herald’s final Right-to-Know request for all citizen complaints at the end of our investigation.

While this is a step toward transparency, it is only a list – no records are available to view or download.

Without access to the full complaint record, the public cannot see how DEP inspectors investigate. It’s also impossible to see the details of each complainant’s call, their water test results, or the determination letters issued.

The records provide invaluable insight into a caller’s experience and an inspector’s conduct during the investigation.

You can also see people’s descriptions of their water problems, like foaming or bubbling, bad odors, and strange colors. In other cases, residents experience stomach aches, rashes, hair loss, dead animals, and even hospitalizations.

While DEP’s annual report “highlights ongoing data trends” for violations, compliance, stray gas migrations, and other issues, the agency fails to include any trend analysis of oil and gas complaints.

Why is this important?

After twelve years of oil and gas development, the secrecy surrounding complaints has prevented scientists, policymakers, and medical professionals from doing their jobs and has kept the impacts of fracking underground.

The Business of Complaints

“This level of complaints is not good business practice,” remarked Dr. Stolz. “We’re talking about at least 100,000 wells when all is said and done. At that level, all DEP will be doing is fielding calls for complaints. That’s a real concern, and it needs to be addressed.”

This graph shows the cumulative number of unconventional wells drilled in PA from 2004-2016, alongside the cumulative number of DEP complaints as a whole and those categorized as water.  © Public Herald

Over the past four years, DEP has received an average of three oil and gas complaints per business day, with just over 10,000 unconventional wells drilled. At this rate, with 100,000 wells, DEP could be responding to an average 30 complaints related to fracking every day.

The projected rise in complaints would likely place a huge financial burden on DEP’s shoulders, a burden carried under the weight of a decreasing budget and a legal mandate to permit new wells.

Since 2004, the agency has permitted 21,980 unconventional wells – to date, only half have been drilled.

It would be reasonable to think that the Department would conduct its own complaint analysis and report those findings to the state legislature, which has the power to either limit the expansion of fracking, increase the breadth of DEP’s resources, or both.

But that’s not what DEP is doing.

Public Trust

DEP has concluded that out of thousands of drinking water complaints that residents attribute to oil and gas activities, only 6% of these are related.

This means that thousands of people in shale gas counties, living near fracking operations, are experiencing water problems that DEP claims have nothing to do with oil and gas.

So why, then, are so many people noticing changes to their water? And what is really causing those changes? What evidence does DEP have that proves oil and gas is not responsible?

Public Herald dove into the complaint records to find this out.

In 2015, we reviewed 200 cases and discovered ways that DEP ignores, excuses, and dismisses evidence that indicates impact from oil and gas activities.

After our initial analysis, we tried to meet with Governor Wolf and former DEP Secretary John Quigley to discuss the Department’s actions, but our requests were declined.

As our complaint database grew, we began an in depth analysis in search of further evidence.

For this report, Public Herald has reviewed over 1,000 drinking water complaint cases in Pennsylvania. Our analysis reveals shocking evidence of misconduct within DEP that includes and exceeds mere negligence.

READ PART 2 »

This story was made possible by generous donations from people like you, and is partly funded by grants from The 11th Hour Project and The Heinz Endowments. The work conducted by Dr. John Stolz has also received funding from The Heinz Endowments.

“The Heinz Endowments is devoted to the mission of helping our region prosper as a vibrant center of creativity, learning, and social, economic and environmental sustainability. Core to our work is the vision of a just community where all are included and where everyone who calls southwestern Pennsylvania home has a real and meaningful opportunity to thrive.”

This story is part of the INVISIBLE HAND series. For more on complaint investigations, watch Public Herald’s feature documentary TRIPLE DIVIDE, where we first started to investigate complaint cases.

If you have information to share about your story or others please take a moment to fill out our public survey. Information collected in the survey remains confidential until approved by the source for publishing.

AUTHORS

Melissa Troutman
Melissa Troutman

Melissa A. Troutman

Executive Director

Learn More About Melissa »

jbpribanic_profile

Joshua B. Pribanic

Editor-in-Chief

Learn More About Joshua »

Sierra Shamer
Sierra Shamer

Sierra Shamer

Journalist

Learn More About Sierra »

TEAM

Andrew Geller
Andrew Geller

Andrew Geller

Film/Editor

Learn More About Andrew »

Oz Gerard
Oz Gerard

Oz Gerard

Artist

Learn More About Oz »

Kyle Pattison

Kyle Pattison

Photographer/Research

Learn More About Kyle »

Molly Breit
Molly Breit

Molly Breit

Data Intern

05/16-12/16

Sophie Riedel
Sophie Riedel

Sophie Riedel

Data Intern

10/16-12/16

  • winterarrives

    Everyone should send this report to each of their legislators and demand a criminal investigation and an end to new permits immediately.

    • Myles Bennett Dyson

      Oh yeah. A biased report by (3) 20 year-old hipster somethings and we should end an entire industry. Grow up.

      • COMALite J

        Please show exactly what was biased and how the real (not “alternative”) facts disagree with this report. Back it up with citations to actual data.

        • Myles Bennett Dyson

          The alternative facts are in this report.

      • KateB

        Perhaps you’d like to read the reports and make your own graph.

  • Tracy Carluccio

    PADEP reports prove that fracking has indelibly harmed PA and its residents. This shocking expose is grounds for a full-fledged investigation into PADEP’s mishandling of water contamination and public health complaints.

  • Carl Mertz

    Let’s put this into prospective,Obama has let how many people in thru the border who have murdered raped and robbed while you dumb @ss tree hugging liberal sat on your hands. Not a d@m one of you read the entire article which said there were more compain’s than problems. Give me back my $ 9 Trillion Dollar you @ss holes wasted over the last 8 years then we will worry about your pretend problem.

  • Laurie Barr

    Knocked it outta the park. Thank you for your hard work, determination and
    perseverance. Excellent journalism! Your dedication is inspiring and
    invaluable. Thank you!

  • Briget Shields

    Great work by Public Herald. The PA legislators should now be able to assist the abandoned families who have been without water for so long get relief. It’s time for a full investigation and help to those who have been suffering.

  • Grin

    The frackers can wreak all the havoc they want in Pennsylvania, and as long as the legislators stay bought, there’s nothing the people can do. That’s because Pennsylvania has replaced actual counts of real ballots with DRE touchscreens known to lose, switch, and fake votes.

  • nathansooy

    This is the work that the traditional environmental groups would not or could not do. Public Herald and FracTracker are to be commended for your hard, long suffering, and effective work.

    The powers-that-be need to be pressured to act in a systematic way for the public’s protection.

  • Erin Peszko

    What about the issue of sand dust causing lung issues of the workers? I have heard also that the sand dust (silica) is being compressed into plates. Exactly what is that about?

  • dyrt57

    The DEP and the Gas Co came and did the water test together when we complained…of course it wasn’t the gas co’s fault…

    • If you’re willing to speak about your experience with PA DEP please get in touch with our Editor, Joshua Pribanic: joshua@publicherald:disqus.org

  • Paul S. Heckbert

    Why is there no date on this article? When was it written?

    • Looks like the date widget was turned off. Thanks for noticing! It’s up again.