Kirk Jalbert started thinking about fracking and environmental justice last year. That’s when he heard a gas company executive make an offhand remark that his company didn’t frack in rich neighborhoods, where residents could afford expensive lawsuits to fight the industry. 

“Within the way we understand environmental justice that would be an egregious admission of trying to skirt environmental justice rules,” Jalbert says.

The executive later called the comment a joke.

But that got Jalbert thinking: was this ‘joke’ actually true? So, Jalbert, an environmental data scientist who works with the nonprofit group FracTracker Alliance, mapped wells in three Western Pennsylvania counties–Allegheny, Butler, and Armstrong. Out of nearly 800 wells, only two were drilled in census tracts with median home values over $200,000.

He found similar data on gas leases.

Jalbert says there’s a pattern there, but he doesn’t know exactly why wealthier neighborhoods are less likely to have gas activity.

“Is it because people [don’t] need to lease their properties for profit? Or is it because they want to maintain an aesthetic people in poorer communities don’t have the luxury to maintain?” Jalbert says.

But Jalbert also found that only 5 percent of shale gas wells in the state were in places designated as “environmental justice areas”. Pennsylvania defines these as places with at least 30 percent minority population and/or 20 percent of the population under the federal poverty line.

Jalbert says people in many gas areas may not be officially “poor”, but they’re not that far from it.

“You’re not seeing necessarily deep poverty, but you see working poor, which is just above the poverty threshold,” he says.  

“Environmental Justice” is a concept that grew out of the civil rights movement. It’s premised on the idea that the costs of industrial development shouldn’t be disproportionately borne by poor or minority communities.

LISTEN: “Is Fracking an Environmental Justice Issue?”

Pennsylvania’s environmental justice program was started more than a decade ago, to give these communities more voice when things like incinerators or landfills are being built nearby. The state’s environmental justice policies were drawn up after residents in a largely black community near Philadelphia sued the state after it had allowed companies to build several toxic and hazardous waste facilities nearby.

But the state’s environmental justice policy was written before the state’s fracking boom began. So none of the state’s more than 10,000 shale gas wells were ever subject to it.

Some environmentalists think it’s time that changed. Last year, several environmental groups asked the state to include oil and gas wells on the list of activities that “trigger” the state’s environmental justice review. The state says it’s reviewing the issue.

Environmental justice is a concept that came out of the civil rights movement. It’s premised on the idea that the costs of industrial development shouldn’t be disproportionately borne by poor or minority communities.

The state bases its designations of environmental justice areas using census data. Once a community is designated, people there get more notice and opportunities to comment on industrial developments that could impact them.

Under the the state’s policy, facilities–like landfills and power plants–must provide extra opportunities for public participation if they seek permits inside an environmental justice area. That includes sending out more public notice and holding extra public meetings. The intent is to give people who might not be able to afford a lawyer or take off from work to attend public hearings more opportunities to comment on a project.

The idea of including oil and gas permits in the program was popular with Kim Gifford, who lives in a designated environmental justice area in Greene County.

“I think they should, especially so close to small towns. You’ve got to worry about your water, your air,” says Gifford. Gifford lives in Dunkard, Pennsylvania, less than a mile from the nearest shale gas well, and is close to dozens more. There is also a coal mine nearby, and a coal-fired power plant a few miles away in West Virginia.

She admits she also benefits from the gas industry. Gifford’s husband is working at Shell’s ethane cracker in Beaver County, which will use the gas that’s pumped from wells locally. Still, she would like to have more ability to comment on how the industry operates in her neighborhood–especially how its trucks drive on the small, windy roads in her neighborhood.

Dunkard is in an environmental justice area in Greene County, Pennsylvania. (Photo: Reid Frazier)

In 2015, former DEP secretary John Quigley said the agency would include oil and gas in the Environmental Justice program. He said that it was justified because of concerns that increases in shale gas drilling could contribute to air and water pollution.

“There’s obviously a significant level of concern about the potential to harm public health. And, very frankly, I think it comported with not only the definition of environmental justice at the time, but certainly where I thought the agency needed to go,” Quigley says.

Quigley hired a director for the office that handles the program, and announced a listening session tour around the state on the future of the program.

But last year, Quigley was let go by the Wolf Administration before he could enact further changes to the program.

Environmental groups would like to expand what the state considers an environmental justice area, using metrics beyond race and poverty level. Veronica Coptis, executive director of the Center for Coalfield Justice, says she thinks reduced school lunch use would be a better metric for the state to use because it encompasses people who are over the poverty line, but not by much.

“You don’t have to live in poverty to get reduced school lunches, but you’re obviously working class and still struggling. And so expanding those limits a little bit higher would help incorporate more communities that are at risk and are struggling,” Coptis says.

Quigley’s predecessor at the DEP, Mike Krancer, said in an email he thought there were reasons drilling permits “do not fit” the original intent of environmental justice review.

Krancer, who now works for a Philadelphia law firm that represents energy companies, said the program was designed to make sure companies weren’t intentionally siting large polluting facilities in poor or minority neighborhoods, and “to assure that the people there get a full opportunity…to be heard on the question.”

He said gas wells were not only smaller polluters than facilities like incinerators, the original targets of the environmental justice program, “but also do not have such locational choices. (Oil and gas wells) are located where the resource is which is largely rural and by voluntary landowner leasing agreements.” 

The Marcellus Shale Coalition, in an email, said adding gas wells to the environmental justice program was unnecessary and would slow down what it calls an already slow process.

By law, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) is required to issue permit decisions on gas wells within 45 days. The current wait time, according to the industry group, is over 90 days. (The DEP says it does not keep data on wait times).

There is no need or justification to further complicate this process, add to the Department’s woeful permitting timeframes, and further make Pennsylvania economically uncompetitive for capital and jobs,” said the group’s spokeswoman Erica Clayton Wright, in an email.

A few miles away from Dunkard, in the town of Mt. Morris, Lori Haines says she agrees with the gas industry. Mt. Morris is not in an environmental justice area, but Haines, who works as a teacher in nearby West Virginia, says she’s seen families that were struggling helped by the money they got from leasing their land to gas companies.

People who were struggling, they’re now able to put their kids through college, they can take trips, they can fix up their homes,” she says. “If we cripple what could be income in an area that really needs income, I’m not so sure who that’s helping.”

Lori Haines of Mt. Morris, Pa. says she doesn’t want environmental justice regulations to “cripple” the gas industry in Greene County (Photo: Reid Frazier)

The DEP says it’s taking all this in.

DEP spokesman Neil Shader said in an email the agency is “currently considering the entire scope of the… program”–not just how it defines environmental justice areas but what kinds of activities should be considered “triggers” for further review. Shader said the agency was “considering ways to balance the need for effective public participation particularly in (Environmental Justice) communities, with the need to process permits in a predictable manner.”

DEP Secretary Patrick McDonnell has yet to say whether he thinks oil and gas should become an environmental justice issue.