How US authorities mishandled and downplayed complaints of water contamination from fracking
After a two-year analysis, investigative journalists Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman have uncovered 9 ways that officials at the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) have kept drinking water contamination across Pennsylvania “off the books” since fracking began in 2004.
Troutman and Pribanic are the co-founders of the investigative news nonprofit Public Herald and produced the fracking documentary Triple Divide (2013) which featured their initial investigations of water contamination related to oil and gas operations.
Public Herald’s latest analysis of 200 DEP investigations in five key townships found that the Department “grossly mishandled” a significant percentage of its water contamination cases between 2009 and 2012. Troutman and Pribanic refer to these mishandled cases as “cooked.”
“We’ve uncovered patterns used by DEP to dismiss water contamination related to fracking operations that would otherwise be reasonably considered pollution,” said Pribanic. “In Delmar Township, Tioga County, a single inspector cooked 9 of 27 cases, a likely 33% increase in the total number of polluted water supplies. Basically, DEP’s current total for water contamination cases related to fracking, which they say is 260, is false; it’s understated; it’s cooked.”
Public Herald has released 2,309 records of DEP complaint investigations in an online, open-source project called #Fileroom (PublicFiles.org), where interactive maps are searchable by county and township and all files can be viewed, printed and shared.
According to the journalists, it took years of negotiating with DEP officials to gain access to water contamination complaints, including staff working under the current administration.
“We initially asked for these files in 2011, but complaints were ‘confidential’,” explained Troutman. “When I asked again in 2012, an attorney from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office told me that Deputy Secretary Scott Perry didn’t want the number of complaints to ‘cause alarm.’ Now, we know why. In Washington County alone, there are 667 complaint investigations on record from 2004 to the spring of 2015.”
Pribanic and Troutman finally gained access to the files using persistence, threatening a lawsuit, and by refusing to leave one DEP regional office until a director agreed to meet with them. “Until now, these records have never seen the light of day,” Pribanic emphasized.
Public Herald’s investigative report includes one water contamination case wherein DEP changed a 2014 determination after environmental attorney Nick Kennedy of Mountain Watershed Association directly challenged the Department’s conclusions by pointing out its flawed investigation.
“We know fracking operations contaminate water; it’s a matter of where and when,” said Troutman. “Without this data, there’s no way for the public to know where and to what extent the Department is failing to address contamination. #Fileroom finally creates a map so citizens, scientists, health professionals and journalists know where to look.”
By visiting #Fileroom, residents can click their county or township and search their home address to find water contamination complaints nearby. Records for 17 counties across the shale extraction zone in Pennsylvania are available now. Public Herald continues to collect complaint records and plans to release data for all counties with fracking in early 2016.
The full “cooked” investigative report can be viewed at http://PublicHerald.org.