THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

Testimony shows Pa. regulators give little scrutiny to gas-drilling outfits

By Michael Rubinkam
Associated Press / April 14, 2011

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ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Pennsylvania environmental regulators say they spend as little as 35 minutes reviewing each of the thousands of applications for natural gas well permits they get each year from drillers intent on tapping the state’s lucrative and vast Marcellus Shale reserves.

And the regulators say they do not give any additional scrutiny to requests to drill near high-quality streams and rivers even though the waterways are protected by state and federal law.

Staffers in the state Department of Environmental Protection testified behind closed doors last month as part of a lawsuit filed by residents and environmental groups over a permit that the agency issued for an exploratory gas well in northeastern Pennsylvania, less than a half-mile from the Delaware River and about 300 feet from a pristine stream.

Reporting by the Associated Press suggests that applications are rubber-stamped, rushed through with little scrutiny, and rarely rejected. The staffers’ statements indicate that the state regulators are overburdened — and possibly ignoring environmental laws — as they struggle to deal with an unprecedented drilling boom that has turned Pennsylvania into a major natural gas player and raised fears about polluted aquifers and air.

The agency has denied few requests to drill in the Marcellus Shale formation, the world’s second-largest gas field. Of the 7,019 applications that the state has processed since 2005, only 31 have been rejected — less than one-half of 1 percent.

The depositions of four agency staffers reveal that:

■ The agency doesn’t consider potential impacts on legally protected watersheds.

■ Staffers don’t consider whether proposed gas wells comply with municipal or regional zoning and planning laws.

■ They don’t consider the cumulative impact of wide-scale development of gas wells in an area.

■ They appear to have a fuzzy understanding of laws that are supposed to govern their work.

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