Top DEP officials must OK Marcellus Shale drilling citations

    The head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection will now personally sign off on all actions taken against natural gas drillers.

    A department e-mail obtained by Pennsylvania Public Radio and other outlets spells out the change: “Effective immediately, any actions, [notices of violation] and such must get the approval of [Deputy Secretary] Dana [Aunkst] and I with the final clearance from [Acting DEP Secretary Michael] Krancer,” wrote Executive Deputy Secretary John Hines on March 23. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette was first with the story.

    Until now, the decision to cite drillers for violations was made by inspectors, and at the regional level. DEP spokeswoman Katie Gresh said the change was made to ensure across-the-board standards.

    “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,” she said.

    That’s not how environmental advocates feel. Former DEP Secretary John Hanger said when he first got wind of the change, he dismissed it as a rumor.

    “Somebody had called me about three days ago saying that there was this directive that was out there–this memo out there. I said I just can’t believe it. I cannot believe that would be the directive,” he said. “This would be the equivalent of a trooper being told that he can’t issue a final ticket until the head of the State Police reviews it. It makes no sense. It is going to chill the activity. It’s going to be corrosive to public confidence in the inspection process.”

    Hanger called the top-down approach “extraordinary and unprecedented.”

    Jan Jarrett, the president and CEO of PennFuture, agreed. “This memo effectively makes a joke out of inspections of Marcellus Shale drilling operations. What this does is it undercuts the independence and professionalism of inspectors out in the field,” she said. “Rather than to make a formal notice that there’s a problem on the site and start the process of getting it fixed–before they can even issue a notice of violation, they’ve got to kick it up the bureaucratic ladder, all the way to the secretary, Secretary Krancer. And they can’t issue a notice of violation until the secretary approves that.”

    Environmentalists have been wary of Gov. Tom Corbett since day one, due to the large amount of money drilling companies donated to the Republican’s campaign. In fact, anti-drilling activists picketed his inauguration.

    Corbett has steadfastly opposed a natural gas severance tax, and made news earlier this month with budget language appearing to give the Department of Community and Economic Development input into the drilling process.

    “They just made [drilling] more controversial,” said Hanger. “This is going to send a message to inspectors: be careful issuing notices of violation.”

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