Commissioner Mark Smith blasts the DEP on gas well inspections
BY JAMES LOEWENSTEIN (Staff Writer)Published: May 7, 2011
Towanda Daily Review
TOWANDA - Only "a pretty low" number of gas wells being drilled in the Marcellus Shale are being inspected by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, the chairman of the Bradford County commissioners said.
"The DEP needs to take a look at how they are inspecting these (gas well) sites, at how many people are actually on site inspecting, and at how many sites are actually being inspected, which is pretty low," Mark Smith, chairman of the Bradford County commissioners, said in a recent interview with news and editorial staff from The Daily Review.
"Drillers are able to drill a lot of wells without any oversight, and that's not the correct way to do things," Smith said.However, DEP spokesperson Katy Gresh on Friday denied Smith's assertion that well sites are not being inspected.
"If Commissioner Smith can point to specific examples of well sites that are not being inspected, we would like to hear about it, and we would investigate that," Gresh said. "I find that very hard to believe."
Smith said that more inspections might be able to prevent more spills at well sites and more blowouts.
He said the rate at which well permits are issued by the DEP may need to be scaled back. "I think that the number of permits issued ought to reflect the number of inspectors that are able to do the job," Smith said. "I don't think they should be permitting sites at a breakneck speed when none of the inspectors would be able to keep up with it. I think that the (rate of) permitting ought to match what they're able to achieve at a personnel level."
In a discussion of water pollution problems occurring locally, Smith said: "I think they (the DEP) should be on top of these things. I think they should be on top of these well casings. They're just not able to inspect them all." Smith also faulted the decision made a couple of years ago by then-DEP Secretary John Hanger to have the DEP do the permitting for erosion and sedimentation control at gas well sties. Prior to that decision, the permitting had been done by county conservation district offices, he said.
"I think that the erosion and sedimentation permitting that was pulled from the county level at the conservation districts should be restored so that we have some local boots on the ground, taking a look at every single one of these sites. And right now, those approvals for erosion and sedimentation, for instance, are done all at DEP, and they are approved on paper. There's no site verification for any of it. That's completely lacking."Gresh also said: "If Commissioner Smith has facts to back up his assertions, we are willing to listen, but his political rhetoric about the DEP's commitment to the environment is ill-placed. A fact which Commissioner Smith may not be aware of is that since 2008, our Oil and Gas staff has more than doubled. Our team of inspectors are vigorously enforcing regulations as we work to oversee this industry in an environmentally and economically conscious manner."
Regarding Smith's comments about the DEP's permitting for erosion and sedimentation controls, Gresh said: "Commissioner Smith may misunderstand the role conservation districts played in permitting. Again, if he wants to discuss the facts, we are willing to listen and the (governor's) Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission will continue to welcome any suggestions he would like to offer."
However, Gresh declined to specify how Smith might be misunderstanding the role the conservation districts had played in the permitting. Regarding the permitting of erosion and sedimentation controls by the DEP, Gresh also said: "when we find violations at well sites, we have a record of taking strong enforcement action."
James Loewenstein can be reached at (570) 265-1633; or email: email@example.com