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Adam Garber,
PennEnvironment

New report: For frackers it pays to pollute

Median fine of $5,300 makes environmental violations cost of doing business
For Immediate Release

[Harrisburg]—A new analysis by PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center finds that while fracking companies continue to violate cornerstone environmental laws and public health protections, they rarely pay significant penalties for their violations.The new study showed that a median fine for fracking violations in Pennsylvania of just $5,263 with only 17% of violations receiving a fine. 

The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center was joined by public health experts, non-profit leaders, and environmental groups in calling for stronger enforcement of existing environmental protections, increased funding for the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA-DEP), and escalating levels of mandatory minimum fines for repeat offenders. 

“When gas companies are making billions of dollars selling natural gas out from underneath Pennsylvania but paying pennies on the dollar for breaking the law, it’s a recipe for environmental disaster,” said Adam Garber, PennEnvironment Deputy Director. “Sadly, the message is clear: it pays to pollute if you’re fracking in Pennsylvania.”

Since fracking operations started growing in 2008 there have been an average of 1.4 environmental violations uncovered daily, with a total of 4,351 violations.  These violations contributed to public health threats throughout the Commonwealth including the contamination of drinking water supplies, polluting Pennsylvania’s high quality streams, and the improper disposal of toxic fracking waste.  Many times these violations are racked up by one single company, such as Cabot Oil & Gas who violated the law over nearly once a week during the report’s time period.

"This PennEnvironment report illustrates the need to take immediate action to enforce DEP regulations that are designed to protect health and safety concerns that surround fracking and drilling" said Representative Carolyn Comitta of Pennsylvania's 156th Legislative District. "I am dedicated to working together with our citizens, my legislative colleagues, the gas industry and the DEP to shape a healthy and safe future for our children." 

“At a time when the threat to our air and water in Pennsylvania have increased along with the expansion of fracking, funding for the Department of Environmental Protection is $70 million or 32% from what it was in 2008,” said Marc Stier, Director of the Pennsylvania Budget and Policy Center. “We must reverse this decline or we will continue to risk our health, safety, and future.”

“This report shows that the industry continues to have difficulty in complying with state regulations,” said Dr. John Stolz, director of Duquesne University’s Center for Environmental Research and Education. “It underscores the need to make sure companies act responsibly, protecting their workers and the people living where they operate, as well as respecting the environment.”

On the heels of last week’s budget hearing for PA-DEP, the PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center’s new study highlights the need for halting the decade-long trend of slashing funds for the agency, which are crucial for effective enforcement of the Commonwealth’s environmental protections.  Many fracking sites get minimal inspections each year making it likely that these violations are just the tip of the iceberg. 

"This report finds that a variety of fracking companies - large and small, local and international - commit violations in Pennsylvania essentially on a daily basis," said Alana Miller, policy analyst at Frontier Group and co-author of the report. "Drilling companies in the state are violating rules that are designed to protect Pennsylvania's environmental and public health from real harm. 

“When drillers’ irresponsibility leads to environmental violations, the impacts on people’s health is multiplied,” said Dr. Kelly Kuhns of Millersville University. “We must put the health of residents first by holding the fracking companies accountable and if they can’t follow the laws, then they shouldn’t frack.”

“From a public health perspective, this troubling new report indicates Pennsylvania has not achieved the industry’s promise of safe, adequately regulated fracking operations,” said Raina Rippel, Director of the SW PA Environmental Health Project. “Even under normal operating conditions, cumulative air and water impacts pose a serious threat to the short and long term health of Pennsylvanians.”

In addition to budget cuts at the PA DEP, could impact the state’s ability to hold illegal polluers accountable. A recent court decision, currently being appealed, severely limits a penalty issued to EQT for wastewater leaks at a fracking site. This ruling will make it difficult to use issue significant fines that hinder bad actors, according to the advocacy group.

To ensure gas drilling companies follow basic environmental protections, the report recommends a series of policies including:

  • Increasing Mandatory Minimum Fines by creating a tiered structure for repeat violators to provide a more effective deterrent;
  • Putting More Environmental Inspectors on the beat by increasing funding for the PA DEP;
  • Increased Transparency to provide better public engagement and education about lawbreakers in their community;
  • Permit Revocation for Repeat Offenders for companies that flagrantly violate rules that are designed to protect the environment and public health.

“Imagine if a parking ticket in Harrisburg only cost 10 cents, there would be cars illegally parked in every handicap spot and probably littering the sidewalks,’ noted Garber. “If the penalty isn’t high enough, it won’t stifle bad actors.”

The full report can be viewed and downloaded here

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The PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center (www.PennEnvironment.org/Center) is dedicated to protecting our water, air and open spaces. We investigate problems, craft solutions, educate the public and decision-makers, and help the public make their voices heard in local, state and national debates over the quality of our environment and our lives.