I have read quickly through the deposition taken by the law firm, Smith and Butz, that disclosed this information, and I have to say that at this stage, there is no way to conclude whether or not the practice in question is a matter of deliberate fraud. It might just be good old-fashioned bureaucratic bone-headedness. But the question as to whether it is deliberate or merely negligent should not distract us from the bottom-line conclusion that, for whatever reason, this is one more case in which the state protector is failing to do its job of protecting.
Proponents of drilling repeatedly claim that there no evidence of contamination by hydro-fracking. Well, any purported lack of evidence* is obviously meaningless if nobody is making any meaningful effort to collect it. And the practice disclosed in this case is just one more example of a systematic, institutional inadequacy in the collection of evidence about the environmental impacts of drilling.
There is also, for instance, the nondisclosure agreement problem: in case after case in which contamination and health impacts have been claimed, out-of-court settlements have been made that prevent the public from ever finding out the true substance of the claims or the evidence for them. And then there’s the lack of pre-testing problem: in case after case, contamination is alleged, and because homeowners have lacked either the foreknowledge or the financial means, or both, to test their wells before drilling has commenced, the drilling companies can get away with saying the toxins were there before they started.
The DEP case reveals another problem: issues as to the safety of drilling involve expertise in biochemistry and health issues that the general public simply does not have. If you make a complaint to your state regulators, and they test your water, and they issue a report with 8, or 10, or 12 results, how are you to know that there may be a total of 24 or more substances that should have been tested for? Surely your state environmental regulator ought to be an entity you can trust in this regard. At least in the state of Pennsylvania, that is clearly not the case.
The idea that drilling can be done safely rests, among other things, upon an entirely bogus reliance on a legal and regulatory system that, when it comes to calling big corporations to account, is almost entirely broken in this country. And it is particularly amusing and ironic that the very individuals who are willing to put their wide-eyed faith in the government when it comes to assuring us of the safety of natural gas drilling, are frequently just those who think it should be starved until it’s small enough to drown in a bathtub.
I imagine Smith and Butz, the law firm representing the homeowners alleging contamination in this latest PA case, will go on to depose the individuals who actually used the codes in question to request water testing, and hopefully provide us with more information about what has been falling between the cracks and why. And maybe these particular cracks can be sealed (though not, most likely, as long as Tom Corbett is governor).
But whatever happens with this problem, the broader institutional weakness will remain. Whether drilling can be done safely depends not only on technological matters—which present their own set of issues—but regulatory issues. And there are no foreseeable circumstances under which regulation should be trusted to ensure against an eventuality as catastrophic as the contamination of our aquifers. One more reason why we should move as rapidly as possible to energy alternatives that do not carry that kind of risk.
*Claims that there is no evidence of water contamination due to horizontal hydrofracking also ignore, among other things, the USGS’s recent confirmation of earlier EPA findings that hydrofracking has caused water contamination in Pavilion, Wyoming (http://www.businessweek.com/news/2012-09-26/diesel-compounds-found-in-water-near-wyoming-fracking-site), and the fact that there is an abundance of evidence that there has been contamination related to the entire fracking-related drilling lifecycle, even if not specifically related to the fracturing itself.