Published: April 26, 2010
Senator Bob Casey is asking the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate cases of water contamination related to natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania after a gas company operating in Susquehanna County failed to stop methane from leaking into residents' drinking water.
In a letter Monday to EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, Mr. Casey said he wants greater EPA involvement in the state because contamination incidents, including methane migration in Dimock Twp., "raise the question of whether the necessary steps have been taken to protect Pennsylvania families and communities against the detrimental side effects of drilling."
The oil and gas industry is largely exempt from federal environmental oversight and is instead regulated by state agencies. In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection regulates the industry.
But in a press conference Monday, Mr. Casey said several layers of government oversight may be necessary to ensure drilling is done safely. And he believes the federal environmental agency already has some power to regulate the industry in general - and to investigate the Dimock incident specifically - through the Superfund program and emergency powers outlined in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.
He wants the EPA to determine its authority under those laws. If the agency finds that it does not have sufficient authority to protect against the hazards of drilling, it should ask Congress for more, he said.
"I have a concern that there isn't enough of a federal responsibility here," he said, "or even if there is the statutory authority, that the federal government hasn't done enough in terms of investigation or action in this area."
In a letter to the EPA, Senator Casey wrote: “Natural gas drilling can provide an economic boost to Pennsylvania but we must protect ground water,” said Senator Casey. “We will not allow an out-of-state company to come to Pennsylvania and contaminate the groundwater of our residents. Three million Pennsylvanians rely on wells for their drinking water. We must ensure adequate safeguards are in place to protect this most basic necessity for Pennsylvanians.”
“I urge EPA to examine its authority to determine whether it can take additional steps in Pennsylvania to investigate and respond to groundwater contamination and other potentially harmful consequences of drilling. I request a meeting with you and appropriate EPA officials to discuss natural gas drilling and whether EPA could launch an investigation into water and environmental contamination.”
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Last year, Mr. Casey introduced legislation, called the FRAC Act, that would require the hydraulic fracturing of natural gas wells to be regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act. It would also require that drilling companies disclose the chemical composition of the fluids they mix with sand and water to break apart - or hydraulically fracture - the gas-bearing rock.
The gas industry maintains that hydraulic fracturing has never been the confirmed cause of drinking water contamination and argues that federal oversight would be an unnecessary burden.
Mr. Casey said Monday that it is possible for gas drilling to be done safely. "We don't have to choose between jobs and the environment, or choose between economic opportunity and protecting families' drinking water," he said.
This injection of unknown and potentially toxic chemicals often occurs near drinking water wells. Three million Pennsylvanians are dependent on private wells for water. Troubling incidents have occurred around the country where people became ill after fracking operations began in their communities. Some chemicals that are known to have been used in fracking include diesel fuel, benzene, industrial solvents and other carcinogens and endocrine disrupters.
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Victoria Switzer, a Dimock resident whose drinking water has been contaminated with methane, said she and 13 neighbors have had to live with that choice because oversight of the industry was not stringent enough to protect them.
"We've lost our drinking water; there's lots of gas there. That's not a choice people should have to make," she said.