Reporting of fracking and drilling violations weak

@CNNMoney May 1, 2012: 6:56 AM ET

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. (CNNMoney) -- For Pennsylvanians with natural gas wells on their land, chances are they won't know if a safety violation occurs on their property.

That's because the state agency charged with regulating the wells -- the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) -- does not have to notify landowners if a violation is discovered. Even if landowners inquire about safety violations, DEP records are often too technical for the average person and incomplete.

While some landowners would like more transparency around safety issues, as a group they are not pushing for stronger regulations. Landowners, who are paid royalties by the companies that drill on their property, generally want the drilling to proceed.

Violations: In February, CNNMoney spoke with four families in Lycoming County, Pa., about violations issued against natural gas wells on or near their property.

The families have a total of 26 natural gas wells among them. They've received royalties from the wells, ranging from the low hundreds to hundreds of thousands of dollars over the last few years.

Yet none said they had ever been notified by the DEP or any of the well operators that wells near their homes had been cited for what DEP's website said were 62 safety violations over four years.

"We had no idea that there were any violations," said Dan Bower, who lives next door to his mother, Jane, and her five wells.

"We should have been contacted or something," echoed Neil Barto, another well owner.

DEP says that in cases in which violations pose risk to human health, they "certainly notify landowners."

The violations range from simple things such as improper signage to serious infractions such as subpar cementing -- which according to DEP can allow gas to seep out of a well and in some cases "has the potential to cause a fire or explosion."

While the violations are posted online, the digital records are short on specifics -- most importantly whether a violation poses a health risk.

A time consuming process: If landowners want to inquire about all violations on their property, DEP says they should do an in-person file review of the state regulator's documents relating to each well.

The agency declined multiple interview requests, but assured CNNMoney that an in-person review would contain records of any communication with landowners about violations. CNNMoney conducted a file review in late March.

The process required a visit to the regional DEP office, which had to be scheduled weeks in advance.

But even then, the details discovered were largely in legal and technical language.

In approximately 1,000 pages of documents for the 26 permitted wells, there was only one record of any communication DEP had with a landowner about a violation.

A letter was sent to indicate that a spill of fluid used for drilling on Jane Bower's property had been cleaned up, but the recipient's name was redacted.

Both Jane and Dan say they never received such a letter, even though DEP fined Chief Oil and Gas, the operator of the well at the time, $2,100 for the five barrel spill. There were no details of this spill on the DEP website.

The file review revealed there was also a spill of 294 gallons of 'frac fluid' at the same Bower well. The fluid is what is used in hydraulic fracturing, a process where water, sand and a small amount of chemicals, are injected into shale deep underground to fracture the rock and release gas.

There was no mention of this spill in DEP's online records, and the paper records did not clearly indicate whether the ground water was tested after the spill.

It is not clear from the physical records whether these spills, or any other violations reviewed, ever posed a threat to human health.

The well operator at the time, Chief, said it did not.

But David Yoxtheimer, a hydrogeologist at Penn State's Marcellus Center for Outreach and Research, said there's not enough information to say for certain.

He said that if the Bower spills had gotten into surface or ground water then they "could have a water quality impact of low to moderate severity," but that such a risk would depend on site-specific factors not available in the files.

Landowner apathy: Despite the violations, it's not clear that the landowners are doing all in their power to check for violations on their property.

Neither the Bowers nor the Bartos have a computer to check for violations, and neither plans on changing that.

"I sure as hell am not gonna buy one to check DEP," Neil Barto said.

All four families continue to support the drilling and note it has been a boon to the local economy. The Bartos, who have six wells on their property, say they have made about $150,000 in royalties off of the wells on their property in the last three years.

Plus, increased regulation is not a priority for them. That's a fairly common viewpoint among landowners.

"In our experience, landowner groups have been focused on advancing expanded drilling to maximize royalty payment opportunities, and have generally been opposed to increased regulation," said Kate Sinding at the Natural Resources Defense Council.

And that, says the NRDC, could be delaying further regulation for the industry, or taking pressure off regulators to report violations more clearly.

"Advocacy for those kinds of protections would undoubtedly carry more weight were they to come from landowners themselves, as opposed to the environmental community," Sinding said.

-- with additional reporting by CNN's Poppy Harlow To top of page

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