The Post-Gazette analyzed every paper record for every Marcellus well incident that resulted in fines through June 1, 2014, and compared those to the information on the online Compliance Report.
It found vast discrepancies between the field reports of the incidents and the electronic accounting of them. Among the findings:
–Of the 568 incidents at a Marcellus well that resulted in a fine, only 380 are listed online.
–Of those 380 listed incidents, a comparison with paper records showed that in 48 cases at least one violation was obscured because a generic code was used, in 44 cases an incorrect code was used, and in 102 cases at least one violation was completely dropped.
–In all, 256 violations were dropped. For example, in a Washington County case, Rice Energy was fined $85,000 for 10 violations, but the online record showed only one violation.
–Of the 188 fines not found online, 172 were for less serious administrative violations of filing late well records (149) and failing to obtain a state permit (23). Sixteen were for spills, sediment-laden water running off a site, or other potentially serious incidents that could directly impact the environment.
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Scott Perry, a DEP deputy secretary in charge of the oil and gas management office, said the problems are evidence of a fact that the state concedes: “We recognize we’re not transparent enough. We have to do better.”
The Post-Gazette analysis provides detail on issues discussed in a scathing state auditor general review of the Department of Environmental Protection’s oversight, issued July 22. The audit described the agency’s shortcomings, including lack of enforcement and data problems.
The Post-Gazette found that the core problem with the violation discrepancies is that the system for entering data electronically doesn’t include all of the state violation codes, so inspectors can’t accurately transfer data from paper records to the online system. The result has been that sometimes inspectors don’t enter violations, sometimes they enter under a code that is not an accurate reflection of the violation, and sometimes they enter a generic code that doesn’t give a specific idea of what the violation was.
The data problems can obscure specific cases.
For example, only two of four violations issued in one of the worst incidents in the Marcellus era — a March 2010 fire and spill at an Atlas Resources well site in Washington County that resulted in an $80,000 fine — appear in the DEP database, making it look like a less serious event.
The incident occurred after more than a year of complaints from the landowner and neighbors about the well site in Hopewell.
A drill pit filled with thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid, mixed with condensate gas, ignited when a nearby generator backfired, creating a massive fireball that burned the drill pit and a holding tank. The fire also resulted in a fluid spill when it burned the pit’s plastic liner.
State officials issued the fine based on four violations issued the day of the incident: failure to maintain 2 feet of “freeboard,” or space between the top of the fluid in the pit and the sides of the pit where it might overflow; failure to properly implement the Preparedness, Prevention and Contingency Plan; and two separate violations for improper disposal of fluids.
Only the failure to maintain required freeboard and failure to implement the PPC plan were listed online; the two most important violations — for improper disposal of fluids — were not. The state inspector noted in the comments section found in the Compliance Report, “78.57a and 78.54 not in efacts.” Those were codes for the two citations for improper disposal of fluids.
Similarly, only two out of four violations are listed for a Somerset County spill that resulted in Chief Oil & Gas being fined $180,000 — one of the largest fines in the state’s history. The two most significant violations were the two that were not entered online.
That incident began on June 10, 2010, when a state inspector found an oily substance on a corner of a well pad on a family dairy farm in the Laurel Hill Creek special protection watershed.
It took Chief five months, with repeated prodding by the state, to properly clean up the site.
The paper inspection report shows that the inspector initially cited Chief for failure to maintain 2 feet of freeboard in a drill pit; discharge and improper disposal of industrial fluids; failure to dispose of residual waste properly; and failure to properly report a release.
The only violations listed online are the freeboard violation — which could be issued in a non-spill case where the pit was merely too full — and a version of the violation for failure to report a release.
Detailed spreadsheet: All Marcellus shale well fines in Pennsylvania
No way to document industry record