For the first time, the public can view a comprehensive record of citizen complaints about oil and gas drilling in Pennsylvania. And there are a lot of them — 9,442 to be exact— most of them relating to water contamination. The investigative website Public Herald spent three years acquiring, scanning and publishing these complaints made by residents over 12 years to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection about both conventional and unconventional drilling, or fracking. Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic joined us recently to talk more about their effort and what trends they discovered in the data.
The Allegheny Front: So first, tell us a little bit about how you ended up digging into this issue.
Melissa Troutman: Well, back in 2011, we investigated a gas well blowout in Bradford County. And we noticed during that investigation that DEP had allowed a pre-drill water test to be dismissed. A pre-drill water test is used to show whether there has been a change in water quality after drilling. And a post-drill water test showed multiple parameters that were 10 times the amount in the pre-drill, and yet DEP allowed that pre-drill to be dismissed. So we asked the department for all of the citizen complaints they had received. In 2012, they told us that those complaints were inaccessible because they were confidential. When I asked the southwest regional office attorney why they were confidential, the attorney told me that Oil and Gas Deputy Secretary Scott Perry had made them confidential so as not to cause alarm. And, of course, that’s when we knew we needed to get all of the complaints.
LISTEN: Public Complaints Double During Fracking Boom
Joshua Pribanic: On multiple occasions, DEP attempted to withhold these complaints from Public Herald. I mean, we had more confrontations at their offices than I can count on one hand. For instance, in the eastern office in Williamsport, they attempted to say that we could only scan 10 townships per visit, which would have taken us still to today just to scan the records in that office. So in many cases, we had to hold our ground and force them in one way or another to release these records to the public.
Melissa Troutman: Once we pushed through that resistance, we started compiling complaints little by little and that process took three years. We were the first ones to see these complaints and aggregate them, and DEP was literally having to redact every sheet of paper before it got to us. But now, for the first time, that data is public — and it is mapped. One of the issues that’s been of concern is that when there is a problem, there is no system to let other people in the area know that there’s been a water contamination issue, for instance. So now, people can go click on their county or township and see all the complaints that have occurred in their area.
The Allegheny Front: So when you looked at all that data, did you spot any trends?
Melissa Troutman: Well, we mapped all oil and gas complaints, water complaints, the number of conventional wells and the number of unconventional wells per year. And what we found is that in the beginning — 2003, 2004 — there was a large number of conventional wells and very few complaints. Then, in about 2008, you can see conventional wells bottoming out and the rise of unconventional wells. And the increase in complaints almost mirrors the increase in unconventional wells. And by the time you get to 2014, 2015, 2016, the number of complaints per unconventional well is going up. In 2011, there was about one complaint per unconventional well; and in 2015-2016, we’re now up to an average of two complaints per unconventional well. There could be a number of factors and variables that are making that happen. That’s something that definitely needs more study.
Melissa Troutman and Joshua Pribanic are co-founders of the investigative outlet Public Herald. They say they’re now digging into the complaints they’ve scanned and will be issuing a second report with their new findings. You can read their full report and view the map of complaints here. Public Herald is supported in part by the Heinz Endowments, which also funds The Allegheny Front.