April 5, 2011 —
A memo leaked on March 30 seemed pretty clear. Notices of violation (NOV) could not be issued by gas drilling inspectors without first getting approval from headquarters.
Headquarters, in this case, meant the offices of the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP). Further, all NOVs and other actions against gas drillers in the Marcellus Shale must be personally approval by DEP acting secretary Michael Krancer.
Critics pounced quickly.
Jeff Schmidt, chapter director of the Pennsylvania Sierra Club, said this could result in a situation where a valve could be leaking toxic material onto the ground, presenting a possible danger to workers, the public and to emergency responders, “while paperwork sits on a desk in Harrisburg waiting to be reviewed.”
Jan Jarrett, president and CEO of Citizens for Pennsylvania’s Future, criticized the directive, saying, “This policy applies to just one industry—the gas drillers—and it is yet another example of Tom Corbett giving special consideration to the drilling industry which so generously supported his candidacy for governor.”
Schmidt echoed that view. He said, “Some believe that this is simply a way to protect campaign contributors to the governor by forcing a central office review and, of course, once the violation is sitting on a desk in Harrisburg, it’s easy to check whether or not the company that is responsible for the violation had major campaign contributions to Governor Corbett. Cynical people would certainly think that there is a tie-in to campaign contributors here.”
Environmentalists were not alone in their criticism.
Several lawmakers criticized the agency’s action, including state senator Lisa Baker. She called on DEP to clarify the rule. She said, “In my district, drilling is taking place in areas that are environmentally sensitive and in places close to critical watersheds. As more inspectors are deployed to monitor more drilling sites, I want to ensure there is comparable thoroughness to the inspections and consistent application of penalties for violations. Nothing in that suggests the need for any sort of upper-level clearance process.”
Initially, DEP said the new procedure was intended to ensure that the agency is consistent in the enforcement of the rules across the regions of the state where deep drilling occurs. But after the firestorm of criticism erupted last week, the DEP “clarified” the procedure.
On April 4, DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh said in a phone interview that investigators within the department would still be able to issue NOVs as before, but, as part of a three-month pilot program, notification of each NOV and other actions regarding Marcellus Shale wells would be sent to the main office in Harrisburg, so that the secretary and others could track violations and their treatment.