Climate

Pa. Official Admits Errors In Investigation Of Whether Fracking Waste Spoiled Drinking Water

CREDIT: AP Photo/Keith Srakocic

A Pennsylvania official has admitted that he may have used faulty information to determine that fracking waste was not poisoning the drinking water supply at a man’s property in Washington County, according to a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette report.

During his sworn testimony at a trial before the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, Department of Environmental Protection water quality specialist Vincent Yantko said that his 2011 investigation of landowner Loren Kiskadden’s contaminated drinking water “did not follow its regulations to determine whether [chemical] leaks had occurred” at a nearby fracking site, the Post reported. Kiskadden is one of three landowners who say they have experienced health problems due to water pollution from the waste pit at the Yeager drilling site, owned by Range Resources Corporation.

The case happening now is an appeal of a complaint filed by Kiskadden, whose drinking water allegedly turned grey and foamy at his property in Amwell Township. In his original 2011 complaint, Kiskadden claimed that he had used the water there for decades without incident. The only change was heightened operations at the Yeager wastewater site, he said.

In response, the DEP conducted an investigation by collecting water samples from Kiskadden’s property. The DEP found that Kiskadden’s water had elevated levels of hydrogen sulfide odor, acetone, chloroform, and “explosive levels of methane.” However, the DEP also determined that the water contamination was not the result of fracking waste or any gas well-related activities.

Kiskadden appealed that decision to the Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board, claiming the DEP’s decision was “arbitrary and capricious” and based on inaccurate information from the agency’s investigators. Now, that case has been going on for nearly 3 years, and seems to be getting closer to a decision. The official trial started on September 23, and is going until October 9.

At the beginning of the trial last week, the first called witness was DEP specialist Yantko, who oversaw the investigation into Kiskadden’s water in 2011. According to the Post’s account, the testimony was revealing; Yantko said his department “did not report all of its findings,” including one that showed acetone — a chemical compound found in some fracking fluids — both in the soil around Range’s drill cuttings pit and in Kiskadden’s drinking water.

The revelation is just the latest twist in a three-year-long case that has been fraught with peculiarities. One of those peculiarities is that, even though this is a case about alleged water contamination from chemicals, there will seemingly be no testimony during trial about what kind of chemicals Range had been used at the Yeager site. This is because during the two-year-long discovery phase of the case, Range was unable to provide information to the court about what chemicals it uses, despite being requested by the court to do so multiple times.

The reason Range said it was unable to provide information about its chemicals was because the makeup of its chemical-based products are “outside of [Range’s] reach and cannot be obtained.” In other words, those products come from third-party suppliers and manufacturers, and those manufacturers won’t tell Range what is in the products.

In a surprising twist, though, Range told the court it found out what those chemicals were — just one week before trial. But Judge Renwand ruled that letting Range present that evidence at trial now, would constitute “trial by ambush” — an “unfair surprise” to Kiskadden, who should have been given the information at least a year earlier so his attorneys could have time to prepare necessary responses and arguments.

In another twist, Range Resources was also recently slapped with the largest-ever fine against a Marcellus Shale driller in history — $4.15 million — for violations at the Yeager site. Those violations, so bad that the site has been forced to close, were mostly of leaks from its wastewater impoundments, which is the same thing Kiskadden alleged caused his own water well to be contaminated. Indeed, the biggest concern about fracking and its possibility to contaminate water is not from the drilling or fracking process itself, but from the faulty disposal of the massive amount of contaminated wastewater it produces.

While under the oversight of current Gov. Tom Corbett — an enthusiastic fracking proponent who is up for re-election this November — state agencies including the DEP have come under fire multiple times for controversies related to fracking and natural gas drilling. The state Department of Health, for instance, has been accused of telling its employees to ignore residents who complain of negative health effects from fracking. The DEP has also been criticized for failing to provide information on fracking-related contamination to state residents.