DEP disputes directive on drilling violations

    In the wake of a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article saying Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection has rescinded a controversial new order, DEP claims the directive was never in place to begin with. That doesn’t square with what the department initially said about the policy.

    In March, several outlets–including WHYY–obtained a DEP e-mail telling field inspectors to forward possible Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling violations to Harrisburg, for final approval from Secretary Michael Krancer.

    The note, written by Executive Deputy Secretary John Hines, says, “Effective immediately, any actions, NOVs and such must get approval of Dana and I with final clearance from Mike [Krancer]. Alisa and Dave are to be cc’ on all correspondence related to these actions. I need to repeat no final actions are to be taken unless approval comes from Dana and I with clearance from Mike [Krancer].”

    Department spokeswoman Katy Gresh now says inspectors have maintained their power to issue permits, and the department just wants to keep tabs on what’s being issued where.

    • WHYY thanks our sponsors — become a WHYY sponsor

    “Inspectors are going into the field, writing notices of violation, as they have always done. And the regions are offering central office notification of what notices of violation are being issued,” she said Tuesday.

    Jeff Schmidt, the director of Pennsylvania’s Sierra Club, doesn’t buy it. He insisted DEP is trying to “rewrite history,” and goes back to the initial leaked email. “To me, the fact that the executive deputy secretary of DEP referred to his message as a directive makes it clear that they had a policy of requiring NOV approval by Secretary Krancer,” he said.

    On March 30, Gresh had this to say about the new policy: “This effort to bring about consistency will ensure that enforcement actions levied against companies in one region for one activity will be levied against companies in every other region for the same activity.” A few days later, DEP announced the shift would be tested during a three-month trial period.

    Schmidt kicked the latest back-and-forth off by releasing a letter Gov. Tom Corbett wrote to him, which read, “Inspectors in the field will continue to maintain the same ability to issue notice of violations as they have in the past. DEP remains poised to respond quickly and efficiently to any potential environmental hazard. DEP’s goal is to act as one DEP and not as seven DEPs. For this reason, it has been necessary to make minor adjustments to several internal processes to enhance effectiveness. However, none of these adjustments will prevent inspectors from making ‘in the field’ decisions and taking appropriate actions.”

    Schmidt believes the department and Corbett Administration shifted course, after facing negative public reaction.

    Why is keeping final violation approval in inspectors’ hands so important for Schmidt?

    “By going up the chain and waiting, perhaps for days or weeks, for approval, environmental problems could go unaddressed,” he explained. “Beyond that, there’s also the matter of public record. If a notice of violation is not approved, it never becomes a public document,” he explained.

    Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

    Together we can reach 100% of WHYY’s fiscal year goal