Attorney General Investigating Allegations that Republican Representative-Elect Jason Ortitay Committed Voter Fraud

Jason Ortitay

The Pennsylvania Attorney General’s Office on Wednesday confirmed that it is investigating whether or not Republican Representative-Elect Jason Ortitay committed voter fraud.

Washington County District Attorney Gene Vittone in a telephone call to Marcellus Monitor Wednesday said it was a “no brainer” decision for him to refer the case to the Attorney General’s office.

“I try to do the right thing,” Vittone said, adding that, because he was one of Ortitay’s campaign donors, it would be inappropriate for him to investigate the formal private criminal complaints filed against the Republican first-time political candidate.

Vittone, whose office has been in the spotlight for Rule 600 – or due process – violations, said he referred the case to the Attorney General last week. However, the attorney general’s office confirmed Wednesday morning that the case had just been referred to their office Tuesday.

An investigator, the AGs’ office said, had not yet been assigned.

Questions arose in October about a voter registration form Ortitay filled out in 2013, claiming he had moved into the 46th District on the last day on which he could and still be eligible to run for office. An investigative report published on Marcellus Monitor uncovered documents that cast doubt into whether Ortitay ever actually lived at a Burgettstown home he claimed as his residence on the form.

The report prompted at least one person to file a formal private criminal complaint asking Vittone’s office – which has original jurisdiction – to investigate whether “(Jason) Ortitay knowingly and intentionally changed his voter registration to an address he never lived at in order to run for the General Assembly.”

Vittone’s decision to punt the case to the Attorney General’s office came after Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn called on him to immediately recuse himself from the case.

Burn gave the following statement:

“The evidence suggests – in my opinion – that further investigation is warranted and should start immediately. The candidate needs to come clean or hire a lawyer. It is of extreme significance to us in the Democratic Party: (Vittone) must recuse himself immediately. In my opinion it creates the appearance of a conflict because he gave money to a candidate who is the subject of a private criminal complaint.”

Burn then added:

“It’s unfortunate that Republicans made so much noise in 2012 about voter fraud on the part of Democrats. When we raise similar concerns, we can’t seem to find a Republican who wants to do anything about it.”

The private criminal complaint filed last week, names both Ortitay and Pam Church, the woman with whom he said he lived when he filled out a voter registration form on Oct. 7, 2014 – the last day on which he could register and still meet the residential requirements to run for office in the 46th legislative District.

The complaint alleges that Ortitay violated Pennsylvania election law, specifically 25 Pa.C.S.A. § 1703(a)(3), which prohibits an individual from declaring a residence he knows is not his legal residence on a voter registration form.

Violation of this statute is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $10,000, and/or five years in prison. It also calls for the loss of voting rights for a period of 10 years. State law indicates that a person convicted of voter fraud may not serve as a member of the state Legislature.

Documents obtained by Marcellus Monitor indicate that while Ortitay registered to vote in Burgettstown Oct. 7, 2013 – certifying under penalty of perjury that he would have lived there for a minimum of 30 days prior to that year’s election – he then, just a day later on Oct. 8, signed a lease for an apartment in South Fayette.

On Oct. 8, Ortitay also filled out a change-of-address form through the U.S. Postal Service asking that his mail be forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his South Fayette apartment, beginning on Oct. 11. The lease for his former Pittsburgh apartment did not expire until Oct. 31, 2013, according to that document.

To read Marcellus Monitor’s investigative report about Ortitay’s voter registration, click here.

Oritay did not immediately return a phone message seeking comment on the matter.

Oritay won the election Tuesday against incumbent Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township, in a Marcellus Shale-centric race.

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DA Reviewing Private Criminal Complaint Against Republican House Candidate for Alleged Voter Fraud; PA Dem Chair Calls for Recusal of DA/Campaign Donor

Jason Ortitay (left) and District Attorney Gene Vittone (right)

A formal private criminal complaint was filed this week against a Republican state House candidate asking the Washington County District attorney – who after being questioned Friday said he might have a conflict of interest in the case – to investigate whether “(Jason) Ortitay knowingly and intentionally changed his voter registration to an address he never lived at in order to run for the General Assembly.”

According to a campaign finance report filed this week by Ortitay’s campaign, the Committee to Re-Elect Gene Vittone donated $200 to the fellow Republican’s political campaign.

Asked Thursday about whether his office would investigate, Vittone first said the state Attorney General would have jurisdiction. When told the Attorney General’s office indicated that his office had jurisdiction, Vittone then suggested that the state House of Representatives would need to take up the issue if and when Ortitay got elected. He then said that his office would not be able to investigate unless a formal criminal complaint was filed.

“That’s the procedure,” he said Thursday.

Reached Friday after Marcellus Monitor obtained the formal criminal complaint, Vittone said it would be reviewed, and that he could not make a decision or comment extensively until he had read it.

Asked if his campaign committee donating money to Ortitay’s campaign would constitute as a conflict of interest, he said he would need to review what was being alleged before making that determination.

“If I believe there is a conflict, I will farm it out to the Attorney General’s office,” Vittone said.

Asked why he didn’t mention the potential conflict of interest when asked about the issue Thursday, he said, “You didn’t ask,” then added, “I forgot about it.”

Vittone, who said he was “permitted to donate to political campaigns like anyone else,” then added:

“There is nothing sinister going on.”

But reached Friday evening, Pennsylvania Democratic Party Chairman Jim Burn called on Vittone to immediately recuse himself from the case.

Burn gave the following statement:

“The evidence suggests – in my opinion – that further investigation is warranted and should start immediately. The candidate needs to come clean or hire a lawyer. It is of extreme significance to us in the Democratic Party: (Vittone) must recuse himself immediately. In my opinion it creates the appearance of a conflict because he gave money to a candidate who is the subject of a private criminal complaint.”

Burn then added:

“It’s unfortunate that Republicans made so much noise in 2012 about voter fraud on the part of Democrats. When we raise similar concerns, we can’t seem to find a Republican who wants to do anything about it.”

The private criminal complaint filed Friday, names both Ortitay and Pam Church, the woman with whom he said he lived when he filled out a voter registration form on Oct. 7, 2014 – the last day on which he could register and still meet the residential requirements to run for office in the 46th legislative District.

The complaint alleges that Ortitay violated Pennsylvania election law, specifically 25 Pa.C.S.A. § 1703(a)(3), which prohibits an individual from declaring a residence he knows is not his legal residence on a voter registration form.

Violation of this statute is a first-degree misdemeanor that carries a fine of as much as $10,000, and/or five years in prison. It also calls for the loss of voting rights for a period of 10 years.

Documents obtained by Marcellus Monitor indicate that while Ortitay registered to vote in Burgettstown Oct. 7, 2013 – certifying under penalty of perjury that he would have lived there for a minimum of 30 days prior to that year’s election – he then, just a day later on Oct. 8, signed a lease for an apartment in South Fayette.

On Oct. 8, Ortitay also filled out a change-of-address form through the U.S. Postal Service asking that his mail be forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his South Fayette apartment, beginning on Oct. 11. The lease for his former Pittsburgh apartment did not expire until Oct. 31, 2013, according to that document.

To read Marcellus Monitor’s investigative report about Ortitay’s voter registration, click here.

Oritay did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the matter.

Oritay is the Republican facing off against incumbent state Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township in the 46th District race – one in which Marcellus shale is a leading issue.

 

 

 

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Did A Republican Candidate in Shale-Centric PA House Race Commit Voter Fraud?

Editor’s Note: Faithful readers of Marcellus Monitor likely have noticed the vast majority of stories I’ve published over this past year have originated from southwestern Pennsylvania, or, more specifically, from Pennsylvania’s 46th Legislative District.

The sitting representative in the district, which encompasses portions of Washington and Allegheny counties, is state Rep. Jesse White, a Democrat from Cecil Township. White has been called a “watchdog” on matters pertaining to Marcellus Shale. Because of his outspoken criticism of the Marcellus Shale industry and the state Department of Environmental Protection, which is tasked with regulating it, White has been painted as the “anti-shale” candidate by some.

His opponent, Republican Jason Ortitay (who owns Jason’s Cheesecake Company) is, by contrast, largely considered the “pro-shale” candidate (in fact, EQT’s political action committee is hosting an event to benefit the first-time state representative candidate this Thursday at the Cambria Suites in Washington.

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By way of background, DEP recently announced it is seeking a $4.5 million fine from the company for what the department called an impoundment leak. If assessed, it will be the largest such civil penalty in state history.

All that said, this story, while a bit different from the types of investigative reports I have published in the past, is pertinent, I believe, to all those who have been following this shale-centric race, and to all those who live  or work in the 46th District. -amanda

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(This house on Maple Avenue in Burgettstown – the home of Pam Church – is where Jason Ortitay, Republican candidate for the 46th District state House seat, said he lived when he registered to vote in Burgettstown, Washington County. Ortitay registered to vote there on the very last day he could move into the district and still, under Pennsylvania statute, be eligible to run for office during this year’s election. Photo by Faith Cotter. Taken on Oct. 13, 2014)

By Faith Cotter

Despite admitting in a recent interview that he was in between apartments at the time, Republican candidate for the 46th state House seat, Jason Ortitay, registered to vote in Burgettstown, Washington County – an address that, on paper, moved him into the district on the very last day he could and still be eligible to run for office there in this November’s general election.

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However, state election code dictates that, by registering, a prospective voter is stating – under penalty of perjury – that they will have lived at that residence for 30 days prior to the election in which they wish to vote. But according to documents, Ortitay signed a lease in South Fayette in Allegheny – which is also in the district – just a day after registering to vote in Burgettstown. And according to documents, Ortitay never even received mail at the Burgettstown addresss.

According to a change-of-address form filled out by Ortitay on Oct. 8, 2013 – just a day after he registered to vote in Burgettstown—he had his mail forwarded from his former Pittsburgh address to his new South Fayette Township address. The change of address was scheduled to take effect just days later on Oct. 11, 2013.

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Had Ortitay waited to register Oct. 8 at his South Fayette address, he may not have been eligible to run for office in the 46th District because he would not have lived in the district for the amount of time required by state statute.

When asked about when he moved in and out of Church’s Burgettstown home, and why he registered there when he signed a lease in South Fayette Township only a day later, Ortitay said:

“I changed my voter registration on the last day I could. Everything I did was completely legitimate. I asked if it was legitimate, and they said yes.”

But according to obtained documents, Ortitay, on paper, was still living in a Pittsburgh apartment until Oct. 31, 2013, when the lease expired. His former Pittsburgh address is not part of the 46th District.

He then signed the new lease for his South Fayette Township apartment (in which he currently resides) on Oct. 8, 2013, the day after he registered to vote in Burgettstown.

During an interview in a Panera parking lot on Oct. 13, 2014, Ortitay was unable to provide specific dates on which he moved in and out of the Burgettstown home – or why he registered there when he signed a lease elsewhere just a day later.

Although a car was in the driveway and a light was on in Church’s home the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2014, nobody answered the door to help clarify when Mr. Ortitay allegedly resided there.

While no one answered the door there after three attempts at knocking, a neighbor across the street answered hers. The neighbor, Carrie Ferris, has resided at her home for 16 years and said that she is “pretty familiar” with the neighborhood.

After being shown a photo of Ortitay, she said, “No, I’ve never seen him around.”

According to Pennsylvania election code, a person is committing voter fraud if they, “Declare as residence a place or address which the individual knows is not the individual’s legal residence.”

If an individual is found guilty of violating this section of Pennsylvania law, which is a first-degree misdemeanor, the penalty could include a fine of not more than $10,000 or imprisonment for not more than five years. Additionally, individuals who are found guilty of violating the statute may lose their right to vote for a period of 10 years.

According to the Criminal Law Division of the Pennsylvania Attorney General’s office, if there is evidence of an individual committing voter fraud, the case would be investigated by the district attorney’s office in the county the individual voted in, unless there is a conflict of interest. In that case, the state Attorney General would have jurisdiction to investigate.

A phone message left with the Washington County District Attorney’s office last week was not immediately returned.

Ortitay did not return two voice mail messages left on his cell phone seeking comment on this story. He hung up on a reporter without answering during a third attempt to make contact prior to publication.

Author’s Note: Faith Cotter is an award-winning writer and editor based in Pittsburgh, PA. Her background includes working as an investigative reporter for The Innocence Institute of Point Park University. She is currently working toward a Master of Arts in Professional Writing from Chatham University. She can be reached by email at faithc3865@gmail.com, or via her website: http://faithc3865.wix.com/faithcotter

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DEP Seeks $4.5 Million Penalty from EQT Production Company for Major Pollution Incident in Tioga County

for eichler post

Editor’s Note: The following news release was posted today to the website of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection.

WILLIAMSPORT — The Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) today announced that it has filed a complaint with the state Environmental Hearing Board requesting a $4.5 million civil penalty from EQT Production Company of Washington, Pa., for a major pollution incident in 2012 at the company’s Phoenix Pad S location in Duncan Township, Tioga County.

“EQT fails to recognize the ongoing environmental harm from the significant amount of waste released by its leaking six million gallon impoundment,” Acting DEP Secretary Dana Aunkst said. “This action was necessary because the company has not been cooperative during our investigation. The department does not tolerate this unacceptable attitude toward compliance and proper protection of Pennsylvania’s environment.”

When EQT originally proposed the impoundment in its earth disturbance permit, the company stated it would be used to store fresh water only. However, after construction was complete in late 2011, the company decided to use the impoundment to store flowback water from Marcellus drilling operations to be used for fracking.

This unauthorized progression compromised environmental protection, as no monitoring wells or leak detection were required to be installed around the impoundment based on its initial stated intended use as a fresh water impoundment.

EQT ultimately proposed to construct a centralized waste impoundment adjacent to the Pad S impoundment and installed monitoring wells to establish baseline water quality in the area. A sampling event conducted on April 30, 2012 revealed elevated levels of chlorides and other parameters in two of the monitoring wells in the vicinity of the existing Pad S impoundment.

During the follow-up investigation of a reported flowback release from a transfer line on May 9, 2012, DEP staff identified two high conductivity seeps near the Pad S impoundment that were unrelated to the reported release. EQT continued to add fluid to the impoundment.

On May 30, 2012, after detecting high conductivity in a third monitoring well for the first time and in a nearby spring, EQT reported to the department that the impoundment was leaking. Impacts were ultimately documented in Rock Run, a high quality stream, an unnamed tributary to Rock Run, and various groundwater seeps and springs. Trees and shrubs along the discharge flow path also were severely impacted.

EQT demonstrated a lack of cooperation by adding more flowback water to the impoundment even after becoming aware of the elevated chlorides in the nearby monitoring wells. A DEP inspection done in June 2012 after the impoundment was emptied verified 75 to 100 holes in the liner as estimated by EQT. EQT later revised this estimate to be over 200 holes.

An aerial inspection of the impoundment area conducted by DEP in August 2012 documented significant areas of stressed vegetation around the well pad in all directions.

EQT eventually removed the liner and excavated contaminated soil but did not conclude this work until July 1, 2013. The exact amount of flowback that leaked from the impoundment is unknown, but the department believes it was significant.

Monitoring of surface waters and the impacted spring by EQT’s consultant has shown contamination is present at high enough levels that this water is still being collected and transported off-site for proper treatment and disposal. Groundwater also continues to show contamination present above standards. This monitoring is being overseen by DEP’s Environmental Cleanup and Brownfields Program.

The department incurred over $112,296 in costs and expenses as a result of its investigation, which is included as part of the proposed penalty.

To view the complaint, visit http://files.dep.state.pa.us/Newsroom/NewsroomPortalFiles/EQT%20Complaint.pdf.  To view the associated exhibits filed with the Board, visit http://files.dep.state.pa.us/Newsroom/NewsroomPortalFiles/EQT_Exhibits%20(3).pptx

For more information, visit www.dep.state.pa.us or call 570-327-3636.

BREAKING: DEP Fines Range Resources $4.15 Million for Violating Environmental Regulations Consent Order; Agreement to Close 5 Washington County Impoundments

This photo of the Jon Day impoundment was taken in May by Robert Donnan, who graciously allowed me to use it here.

This photo of the Jon Day impoundment was taken in May by Robert Donnan, who graciously allowed me to use it here.

Editor’s Note: The following is from a news release put out today by the state Department of Environmental Protection. -amanda

The Department of Environmental Protection on Thursday announced it has signed a wide-ranging consent order and agreement with Range Resources for violations at six of its Washington County centralized waste water impoundments.

The consent order requires the company to pay a $4.15 million fine, the largest against an oil and gas operator in the state’s shale drilling era, close five impoundments and upgrade two other impoundments to meet heightened “next generation” standards currently under development at DEP.

“This action reaffirms the administration’s unwavering commitment to protecting Pennsylvania’s soil and water resources,” DEP Secretary E. Christopher Abruzzo said. “This landmark consent order establishes a new, higher benchmark for companies to meet when designing future impoundments, which is an environmental win for Pennsylvania.”

Violations at the impoundments include various releases of contaminants, such as leaking flowback that affected soil and groundwater. To date there has been no impact on drinking water from any of these impoundments.

Under the consent order, Range Resources will immediately begin the closure of the Hopewell Township 11 (Lowry), Cecil Township 23 (Worstell), and Kearns impoundments.

Range Resources will also continue the closure of the Yeager impoundment. The company must close the Hopewell Township 12 (Bednarski) impoundment by April 1, 2015.

Additionally, the consent order also directs Range Resources to upgrade two other impoundments. The liner systems at the Chartiers Township 16 (Carol Baker) and Amwell Township 15 (Jon Day) impoundments will be completely redesigned and rebuilt to meet “next generation” standards currently under development at DEP.

When upgrading the two impoundments, Range Resources will install thicker liners than are currently required, an electrically conductive geomembrane that will allow better identification of potential leaks and a real-time leak detection system.  Range will also fully investigate and remediate any groundwater contamination caused by the previous operation of the impoundments.

Another impoundment, Mount Pleasant Township 17 (Carter), will be limited to storing only fresh water for as long as it remains in service. Range will also install a groundwater monitoring well network at the impoundment now and will perform an environmental site assessment at this impoundment once it is permanently closed.

The company will be required to report to DEP quarterly on the progress of the shutdown and remediation of the sites.

The consent order also requires Range Resources to immediately begin soil and groundwater investigations at each of the closed impoundments to determine what, if any, impact there was from their operation of the impoundments. If contamination is found, the company is required to remediate the sites.

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DEP Issues Notice of Violation to Range Resources for Leaking Cecil Township Impoundment

worstell

The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued a notice of violation to Marcellus Shale drilling company Range Resources for groundwater contamination at the former Worstell centralized waste water impoundment in Cecil Township.

News of the NOV was given to Cecil Township officials at a private meeting with DEP Monday night, board Chairman Andy Schrader said Tuesday morning.

Schrader said the NOV was issued to Range Resources because liquid from the frack pit, now known as Cecil 23 Impoundment, “escaped containment.”

“Since the DEP issued the notice of violation, this confirmed that the Cecil Township 23 is leaking. For the safety of our residents this was the township’s concern from the beginning,” Schrader.

He said DEP will arrange for further testing to be done at the site to determine the extent of the soil and water contamination.

Three officials from DEP met with all five Cecil supervisors and township Manager Don Gennusso at the municipal building for about two hours Monday to discuss ongoing concerns over possible groundwater contamination stemming from what is now confirmed to have been a leak.

The Monday meeting was requested by township officials after news that, on July 11 Range Resources notified the DEP that there were elevated chloride levels detected by the ground water monitoring wells at the Cecil 23 waste water impoundment.

“Range has until September 24 to respond.  It is our expectation that Range would perform a full characterization of the extent of the plume of contamination and to implement an appropriate remedial response to address the release,” DEP spokesman John Poister said in an email. “Still to be determined would be any civil penalty for Range.”

In response to repeated inquiries by Cecil Township officials, the DEP said last month that it would conduct a limited investigation. Cecil officials in turn sent letters to about 50 nearby residents letting them know about the potential for groundwater contamination.

The Worstell impoundment made headlines in 2013, when Cecil Township supervisors sought to meet publicly with DEP regarding concerns over the frack pit.

DEP refused to meet in public, and documents obtained through a state Right to Know request showed high-ranking officials making a joke about using a provision in the open records law to keep the gathering in private.

News of possible groundwater and soil contamination at the Cecil 23 Impoundment comes in the wake of a “significant” leak at another Range Resources impoundment in Amwell Township, Washington County. That leak necessitated the removal of at least 15,000 tons of soil. DEP issued notices of violation for the leak.

A third frack pit in Amwell run by Range Resources known as the Yeager impoundment – which was the subject of lawsuits and a federal probe – is reportedly in the process of being closed.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella did not immediately return an email seeking more information.

Editor’s Note: It should be acknowledged that the former Worstell impoundment was the subject of industry PR spin. Check out this story and feel free to leave a comment asking for a correction.

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PA Rep. Introduces Bill to Retain Local Impact Fee if Severance Tax is Enacted

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

PA state Rep. Jesse White D, Cecil, recently introduced the legislation.

State Rep. Jesse White on Tuesday introduced legislation that would preserve the Marcellus Shale local impact fee if a severance tax on natural gas production is enacted.

The impact fee, which was enacted in 2012 as part of the state’s natural gas drilling law, Act 13, brought in an estimated $225.7 million in 2013.

The lion’s share of the impact fee goes to municipalities and counties most heavily impacted by drilling to mitigate road and infrastructure damage, and other effects from natural gas development.

White, D-Cecil Township, said that according to current law, if a severance tax is enacted the impact fee will go away by operation of law:

Title 58, Chapter 23: Unconventional Gas Well Fee, § 2318, Expiration:

(a) Notice.–The Secretary of the Commonwealth shall, upon the imposition of a severance tax on unconventional gas wells in this Commonwealth, submit for publication in the Pennsylvania Bulletin notice of the imposition.

(b) Date.–This chapter shall expire on the date of the publication of the notice under subsection (a).

White’s legislation, House Bill 2403, would repeal that section of law to ensure any severance tax enacted would not eliminate the local impact fee.

“Like with any industrial operation, local communities and residents feel the impact of natural-gas development, whether it is damage to roads or increased demands placed on emergency-service providers and other resources,” White, whose district includes portions of Allegheny, Beaver and Washington counties. “The Marcellus Shale impact fee is essential for our municipalities dealing with these impacts, and we need to be absolutely certain the impact fee remains available to help lessen those burdens when Pennsylvania finally joins every other gas-producing state by enacting a reasonable severance tax.”

White said that with increased discussion and support from both Republicans and Democrats for a severance tax on natural gas drilling, the only way to be certain the impact fee remains in place is by amending or repealing the language within current law.

“This is a manufactured crisis created by Gov. Corbett and those in Legislature who voted for Act 13, and it must be fixed to ensure the communities impacted by natural gas drilling activity continue to receive the Local Impact Fee,” White said. “Instead of using the threat of losing the Impact Fee as an election year scare tactic, we need to put policy over politics and do the right thing by passing H.B. 2403 without delay.”

“I urge local municipal officials to make sure their voices are heard on this important topic,” White said.

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DEP Issues Notices of Violation to Range Resources for Leaking Yeager Impoundment in Washington County

Impoundments like this are used to store water used in the fracking process.

Impoundments like this are used to store water used in the fracking process.

The state Department of Environmental Protection has issued notices of violation to Marcellus Shale drilling company Range Resources over issues at its Yeager centralized waste water impoundment on McAdams Road in Amwell Township, Washington County including holes in the liner and elevated chloride levels.

Range Resources violated sections of the Oil and Gas Act, the Clean Streams Act, the Dam Safety and Encroachment Act, and the Solid Waste Management, Act 35.

In the letter from DEP to Range Resources dated July 24, department Water Quality Specialist Supervisor John M. Carson wrote that during the operation of the centralized impoundment, “flow was often detected at the leak detection zone, but Range did not satisfy the permit’s weekly chlorides testing requirements” for it.

The letter goes on to explain that, in a Mary 14 assessment report Range Resources sent to the department, the company indicated that “a hole penetrated the top and bottom liners of the centralized impoundment” on its northeast side directly to the east of the sump area.

The assessment also detailed “holes found during earlier Range inspections,” according to the letter.

That same report also identified five areas of the impoundment site where there were elevated levels of chlorides.

Carson writes:

“These areas are near where Range found liner holes. Chlorides as reflected in the permit, typically indicate a flowback or frack fluids release to soil. The presence of liner holes and corresponding elected chlorides indicate fluids in the impoundment leaked.”

DEP also said:

  • Range Resources did not monitor chlorides as stated in its application and required by its permit
  • Range Resources did not submit an “as built” plans as required. Those plans would have shown department-approved changes to the original plan.
  • Range Resources violated the Dam Safety and Encroachment Act, which states that owners of dams, water obstructions or encroachments are required to “monitor, operate and maintain the facility in a safe condition.”
  • That centralized impoundment fluids “escaped containment,” which is in violation of the Oil and Gas Act and the Solid Waste Management Act

Range Resources has until Aug. 8 to respond to the NOV, according to the letter.

The letter indicates that enforcement action could include civil or criminal proceedings, as well as civil penalties.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella did not immediately return an email seeking further details.

The Yeager impoundment is the second Range Resources pit in Washington County to garner notices of violation. Notices were also sent out for its Jon Day impoundment, also located in Amwell Township, where 15,000 tons of contaminated soil are being removed following a “significant” leak.

Range recently sought to close the Yeager impoundment, which is the subject of several lawsuits as well as a federal probe.

Soil analysis is being conducted at a third Range Resources pit known as Cecil 23 impoundment, formerly known as the Worstell impoundment in Cecil Township. Municipal officials last week hand-delivered letters to nearby residents warning them of potential contamination.

 

 

 

 

 

Cecil Township Warns Residents of Potential Water Contamination Near Frack Pit After DEP Refuses To

worstell

EDITOR’S NOTE/UPDATE: DEP spokesman John Poister emailed me the following statement regarding the Cecil 23 Impoundment:

“DEP was notified of elevated chloride levels in one of its groundwater monitoring wells on July 11.  On July 21st Range did additional sampling on the site.  DEP will have inspectors on site next week to take our own samples from the groundwater monitoring and leak detection system at the impoundment. We do intend to contact property owners who are closest to and down gradient  of the impoundment to determine if they would provide DEP access to their property to conduct sampling of their wells.

Samples will be analyzed for a wide range of inorganic and organics as well as other compounds.  These lab tests generally take between 30 and 45 days to complete.

If DEP determines that groundwater may have been impacted, the DEP will require a comprehensive investigation of the groundwater including an assessment the private water wells with the potential to be impacted.

DEP has not had any complaints from private water well owners in the vicinity of the impoundment.”

 

A controversial Marcellus Shale centralized water impoundment Cecil Township operated by Range Resources and used in the fracking process may have contaminated nearby soil and groundwater, prompting municipal officials there today to hand-deliver letters to about 50 nearby residents.

“The township has come to learn that the impoundment is currently no holding any fluids and was taken out of service in April of this year,” the letter reads. “It is the township’s understanding that the impoundment was taken out of service as part of an investigation to determine whether any fluids entered the groundwater and soils in and around the impoundment site and the source of any fresh water.”

Cecil Township supervisors for more than a year have raised concerns about Cecil 23 impoundment, formerly known as the Worstell impoundment – and the board said in a press release that information it recently received “has furthered those concerns.”

Previously unknown to both the township and the public, is that on July 11 Range Resources notified the DEP that there were elevated chloride levels detected by the ground water monitoring wells at the Cecil 23 waste water impoundment, according to the press release.

In response to repeated inquiries by Cecil Township officials, the DEP confirmed Thursday that they will conduct a limited investigation.

Upon learning this information, Cecil Township called DEP and requested that they notify Cecil Township residents of potential ground water contamination. Unfortunately, the DEP declined to do so initially stating ‘the DEP will not make a general notification to residents, according to Cecil officials.

“Based on recent evidence of water and soil contamination at other Range Resource impoundments in Washington County coupled with concerns raised by Auditor General, DePasquale’s report on DEP performance; we feel that the public has a right to know if it’s safe to live in their neighborhood,” supervisor’s Chairman Andy Schrader said. “Our residents’ safety is our first concern.”

The township intends to closely monitor this investigation and keep residents informed.

The Worstell impoundment made headlines in 2013, when Cecil Township supervisors sought to meet publicly with DEP regarding concerns over the frack pit.

DEP refused to meet in public, and documents obtained through a state Right to Know request showed high-ranking officials making a joke about using a provision in the open records law to keep the gathering in private.

News of possible groundwater and soil contamination at the Cecil 23 Impoundment comes in the wake of a “significant” leak at another Range Resources impoundment in Amwell Township, Washington County. That leak necessitated the removal of at least 15,000 tons of soil. DEP issued notices of violation for the leak.

A third frack pit in Amwell run by Range Resources known as the Yeager impoundment – which was the subject of lawsuits and a federal probe – is reportedly in the process of being closed.

Range Resources spokesman Matt Pitzarella did not immediately return an email seeking more information.

Editor’s Note: While the township intends to closely monitor this investigation and keep residents informed, concerned citizens should contact both the township at 724-745-2227 and the DEP at 1-866-255-5158 with any questions or concerns.

 

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Auditor General Report: DEP was “Unprepared” to Meet Shale Gas Monitoring Responsibilities

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The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection was “unprepared to meet the challenges of monitoring shale gas development effectively,” according to a scathing 128-page audit report released Tuesday by state Auditor General Eugene DePasquale about DEP’s performance monitoring of potential impacts to water quality from Macellus Shale development between 2009 and 2012 – a report that lists eight findings that detail the department’s “shortcomings” related to its function as a regulatory agency.

In a press release DePasquale said, “There are very dedicated hard-working people at DEP but they are being hampered in doing their jobs by lack of resources – including staff and a modern information technology system — and inconsistent or failed implementation of department policies, among other things. “It is almost like firefighters trying to put out a five-alarm fire with a 20-foot garden hose.  There is no question that DEP needs help and soon to protect clean water.”

The audit revealed that DEP failed to consistently issue official orders to well operators who had been determined by DEP to have adversely impacted water supplies.  After reviewing a selection of 15 complaint files for confirmed water supply impact, auditors discovered that DEP issued just one order to a well operator to restore or replace the adversely impacted water supply.

DEP claims that in many cases such orders are procedurally unnecessary as well operators may have already taken steps to restore the water supply under what the agency terms “voluntary compliance.”

“When DEP does not take a formal, documented action against a well operator who has contaminated a water supply, the agency loses credibility as a regulator and is not fully accountable to the public,” DePasquale said. “When DEP has enforcement authority under the law it must exercise that authority routinely, consistently, and transparently. Those gas well operators whose actions cause harm to water supplies should not get an enforcement ‘pass’ just because they have convinced DEP that they will come into compliance with the law or that they negotiated a settlement with the property owner.”

Auditors also reported that DEP did a poor job in communicating its investigation results to citizens who registered complaints with the department.  The agency was not always timely in meeting statutory timeframes for response to complaints it did receive.

“For example, of the water-related complaints reviewed by auditors, the DEP Williamsport regional  office responded to complaints within 10 days, 100 percent of the time, while the DEP Pittsburgh regional office responded to the complaints within the 10-day time period only 64 percent of the time,” DePasquale said. “Why would citizens in the Pittsburgh area have to wait longer for a response than people in the Williamsport area?”

Auditors also noted that DEP’s complaint tracking system, which is used to monitor all environmental complaints, including those that are oil and gas related, was ineffective as it did not provide management with reliable information to effectively manage the program.

“We could not determine whether all complaints received by DEP actually were entered into the system. What’s more, because of how DEP grouped related complaints, it is difficult to figure out exactly how many complaints were received, investigated, and resolved by DEP,” DePasquale said. “While DEP did issue a new policy related to complaint handling, for most of our audit period the existing policy was woefully inadequate. DEP must get that complaint system working.”

In the area of inspections, auditors attempted to measure how quickly DEP was in conducting its initial inspection of shale gas wells, a basic regulatory responsibility.  Unfortunately, auditors were thwarted by DEP’s lack of reliable data—learning that only a “needle in a haystack” review of thousands of hard-copy files would ever yield a conclusion.  Worse, DEP uses a 25-year-old policy on the frequency of inspections, which has a “loop hole,” that only requires DEP to conduct inspections as it has the financial and human resources to do so.

Auditors also found that DEP does not post to its website all statutorily required inspection information. When the data was tested for accuracy, the auditors found errors of more than 25 percent in key data fields, and that as many as 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from the online inspection reporting.

“It is unfathomable to us that for a basic responsibility of DEP — inspecting oil and gas facilities – little criteria exists for when those inspections should occur,” DePasquale said. “Until DEP updates its out-of-date inspection policies, to include mandated inspections at specific critical drilling stages and during the life of the well, it will be nearly impossible to measure DEP’s performance in conducting this very basic responsibility to protect the environment.”

The auditors also noted that DEP does not use a manifest system for tracking shale gas well waste from the well site to disposal.  Instead DEP relies upon a disjointed process that includes self-reporting by well operators with no assurances that waste is disposed of properly.

With respect to transparency, auditors discovered that accessing DEP data is challenging as it is a myriad of confusing web links and jargon.  The information that was presented on its decades-old eFACTS database was often incomplete—requiring a physical review of hard-copy files at distant offices to verify the actual information.

“Through our audit we found that even conducting a review of hard-copy files is not a fool-proof guarantee, as we found some supporting paper files were missing and DEP was not able to produce them,” DePasquale said. “DEP must improve how it conveys reliable information to the public for an activity that is as high-profile as shale gas development.”

Of the eight audit findings and 29 recommendations to improve DEP’s monitoring of potential water quality impacts of shale gas development, DEP disagreed with all audit findings, but conversely agreed with the majority of the recommendations, indicating that there is some acknowledgement on DEP’s part that it must improve. Eighteen of the 29 recommendations do not require additional funding.

“There was plenty of back and forth with DEP during this audit, and in some cases we just could not agree on some findings,” DePasquale said.  “What matters here is the protection of our drinking water supplies. Implementing these 29 recommendations, two of which were directed to the General Assembly, will go a long way now to protecting drinking water resources.  When we look back five years from now, I believe everyone will all agree that our environment and our quality of life are better because of this audit.”

Among the recommendations, auditors encouraged DEP to:

  • always issue an administrative order to a well operator who DEP has determined adversely impacted a water supply—even if DEP used the cooperative approach in bringing the operator into compliance or if the operator and the complainant have reached a private agreement;
  • develop better controls over how complaints are received, tracked, investigated, and resolved;
  • invest resources into replacing, or significantly upgrading, its complaint management system;
  • find the financial resources to hire additional inspectors to meet the demands placed upon the agency;
  • implement an inspection policy that outlines explicitly the requirements for timely and frequent inspections;
  • create a true manifest system to track shale gas waste and be more aggressive in ensuring that the waste data it collects is verified and reliable;
  • reconfigure the agency website and provide complete and pertinent information in a clear and easily understandable manner;
  • invest in information technology resources and develop an IT structure that will ensure its oil and gas program has a strong foundation for the ongoing demands placed upon it; and
  • develop an all-electronic inspection process so that inspection information is accurate and timely to DEP—and more importantly—public stakeholders.

“Shale gas development offers significant benefits to our commonwealth and our nation, but these benefits cannot come at the expense of the public’s trust, health, and well-being,” DePasquale said.  “We must collectively find solutions to this challenge so that Pennsylvania becomes a leader among states in regulating shale gas development.  I am committed to working with the governor, the General Assembly, and other partners to ensure this audit begins that discussion.”

Here were the findings:

  1. DEP failed to issue administrative ordersDEP has a statutory mandate to issue an administrative order when it determines an operator adversely impacted a water supply. Despite this mandate, DEP in many cases chose instead to seek voluntary compliance and encouraged operators to work out a solution with affected parties. DEP also used operators’ time and financial assistance to complete investigations. In our review of 15 positive determination complaint files, we found that DEP issued just one order to an operator to restore/replace the adversely impacted water supply.
  2. DEP communicated poorly with citizens. In cases where DEP investigated allegations of adverse impacts to water quality from oil and gas activity, it didn’t consistently and effectively provide complainants with clear written investigation results. Further, DEP missed certain key statutory deadlines in investigating these complaints. For example, the Pittsburgh district resolved 76 percent of its complaints within 45 days. DEP cited the complexity of some of its investigations, which may involve extensive testing and specialized isotopic testing, as a reason for missing these deadlines.
  3. DEP was unprepared to handle citizen complaints.DEP stated it tracked all complaints it received about oil and gas activity through its complaint tracking system, yet this system was unable to generate consistent and reliable data on the nature and total number of complaints DEP received. DEP has tried to patch CTS and improve its procedures for use of CTS, but DEP still cannot use CTS data to reliably answer simple questions such as: how many shale gas related complaints were received or how many complaints resulted in a positive determination?
  4. No assurance that shale gas wells were inspected timely.DEP followed an outdated and ambiguous inspection policy that did not provide any clear criteria for how many times DEP should inspect a well. We attempted to measure DEP’s performance in this critical area, but we were stymied by DEP’s continual reliance on manual records and limited reliable electronic data. Also, despite adding several oil and gas inspectors to its staff, DEP did not have sufficient resources to manage the increased demands from Pennsylvania’s shale gas boom.
  5. Shale waste monitoring needs to improve.DEP monitors shale waste with self-reported data that is neither verified nor quality controlled for accuracy and reliability. A true manifest system would allow waste to be tracked seamlessly from generation to transport to final disposition, and it could be a proactive tool for DEP to ensure waste is properly disposed. DEP has been reactionary—only if a complaint is registered or an accident occurs, does DEP verify that where the waste was generated, where it was transported, and where it was disposed actually happened. Such an approach is counter-intuitive to being proactive over waste management.
  6. Transparency and accountability are lacking.DEP “provides a spider web of links to arcane reports on its website. Users are left with a dizzying amount of data, but none of the data is presented in a logical and sensible manner. Worst of all, where DEP could be open and transparent about credible cases of adverse impacts to water supplies, it chooses instead to use an overly strict interpretation of the law and not post any such information.”
  7. Information on inspections poorly tracked.Inspections of shale gas facilities are one of the key aspects of DEP’s monitoring efforts. By law, DEP is to post certain inspection and any resulting violation information on its website. The audit found DEP does not post all required information and in testing the data for accuracy, and found errors as high as 25 percent in key data fields. We also found that as many as 76 percent of inspectors’ comments were omitted from online inspection reporting.
  8. Information technology resources are inefficiently used.DEP’s oil and gas program is not effectively using current IT resources available to it. The systems are reliant upon inefficient manual procedures, which impede effective and efficient data collection and reporting. DEP relies on contracted vendors (some of which are former DEP employees) for many of its IT-related needs.
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