Fracking Failures 2017: Oil and Gas Industry Environmental Violations in Pennsylvania



Even when drilling companies follow all the rules, fracking is a dirty and dangerous activity. From the very beginning of clearing a site for drilling, through the extraction, transport and delivery of natural gas, fracking poses significant risks to our air and water and to human health.

Yet drilling companies also regularly violate laws and regulations meant to protect the environment and the public, magnifying the risk. Fracking Failures 2017, written with PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center, finds that gas drillers across Pennsylvania continue to violate laws with little consequence.

An update of a report issued in 2015, Fracking Failures finds that, in Pennsylvania, fracking companies violate rules and regulations meant to protect the environment and human health on virtually a daily basis. Between January 1, 2008, and September 30, 2016, fracking companies together committed a combined total of 4,351 violations, or an average of 1.4 violations per day.

These are not just administrative violations – they are violations of rules designed to protect Pennsylvania’s environmental and public health from real harm. These violations can lead to significant damage to waterways, natural lands and the health of nearby residents. Fracking companies in Pennsylvania have put public health and the environment at risk by:

• Allowing toxic chemicals to flow off drilling sites and into soil and water. On the night of January 11, 2014, a large Cabot tank holding fracking production fluid exploded during a routine inspection. The worker examining the tank was blown backwards and injured, and nearly 3,000 gallons of contaminated water was spilled onto the well pad and surrounding soil.

• Endangering drinking water. Pennsylvania regulators have confirmed at least 283 cases of drinking water contamination due to drilling operations at fracking wells between 2007 and 2016. In one such case, Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC was cited for failing to properly restore a water supply that it had contaminated.

• Polluting our rivers and streams. In 2014, Range Resources was found responsible for leaking pollutants into soil and waterways in Washington County. In one violation, the company allowed fracking fluid to flow from a pipe, ultimately harming aquatic life in Brush Run in Hopewell Township, a stream designated by the state as “high quality,” the second-cleanest designation that a waterway can receive in the Commonwealth.

• Disposing of waste improperly. In one incident at an EXCO Resources well in Bell Township, Clearfield County, the company was cited for contaminating underground drinking water supplies after disposing of wastewater underground at a leaking injection well.

Despite the number of violations resulting from fracking operations across Pennsylvania—and the ensuing pollution, workplace accidents and threats to public health—enforcement has lagged far behind the level necessary to deter companies from breaking the rules. Between 2008 and 2016, just 17 percent of violations of rules meant to protect the environment and public health at unconventional wells were accompanied with a fine. When they were, the median fine was only $5,263.

To protect the public, Pennsylvania must adopt much more stringent protections for existing wells and truly enforce them through:

  • Increased mandatory minimum fines
  • Permit revocation for repeat offenders
  • Additional environmental inspectors
  • Monitoring air emissions and water pollution
  • Increased transparency
  • Ensuring polluters, not taxpayers, pay for damage

However, the sheer number and severity of risks posed by fracking operations make constructing an adequate regulatory regime for fracking and enforcing it at thousands of wells and other sites implausible. The only way to safeguard our health and environment is by stopping fracking, beginning with new wells. Vermont and New York have already banned fracking, and Maryland will likely become the third state to end the practice as the Republican Governor, Larry Hogan, has voiced support for a bill that recently passed out of the legislature.