14 eco groups ask Pa. to change drill/water policy

PITTSBURGH -- Fourteen environmental groups have asked Pennsylvania Republican Gov. Tom Corbett to reverse a recent change in how official notifications of possible water pollution related to Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling are handled. But state officials say the public still gets the information it needs.

The 14 groups claim the new policy would delay warning the public about pollution related to oil and gas drilling from a procedure known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laden water deep into the ground.

Under the new policy, which went into effect Sept. 14, top Department of Environmental Protection administrators in Harrisburg now decide whether residential water users should receive official determination letters, formal notices telling property owners that the agency has found that drilling either did or didn't affect water. In the past, experts in field offices made that decision.

The Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit organization that works throughout the Delaware River watershed, is among the environmental groups critical of the policy change related to drilling in the Marcellus Shale, which lies under parts of Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio and West Virginia.

"The DEP geologists and water quality specialists who are uniquely qualified to make water contamination decisions cannot help but be chilled by the knowledge that their superiors will be second-guessing their scientific determinations," the network's leader, Maya van Rossum, said in a statement.

But the DEP said homeowners whose water may have been affected by drilling still get test results immediately.

"We provide homeowners with sample results as we get them and are in continuous communication throughout our investigations. We respond to every complaint we receive and, when warranted, conduct a full investigation," DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said in an email.

Sunday said it makes sense for senior management to be involved with the separate issue of sending determination letters.

"We stand firmly behind our decision to apprise senior management of what these determination letters contain," he wrote in the email. "It is unreasonable to assert that DEP management should not be aware of these matters, and it would be bad management for them not to be."

The complaints over the issue came from the state Sierra Club chapter, Earthjustice, Clean Water Action, the Pennsylvania Forest Coalition and other groups.

Fracking has made it possible to tap into deep reserves of oil and gas but also has raised concerns about pollution. Large volumes of water, along with sand and hazardous chemicals, are injected deep underground to break rock apart and free the oil and gas.

The energy industry and many federal and state officials say the practice is safe when done properly, but environmental groups and some scientists say there hasn't been enough research about possible pollution.

The Pennsylvania policy change was first reported by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.