Editor’s Note: The folks at Public Herald were kind enough to let me tag along on two file reviews of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection – one here in Pittsburgh, and one in the central part of the state. It was my pleasure being a very, very small part of a very big project. The following is from a press release from the non-profit investigative journalism organization. Let me know what you think. And if you get a chance, be sure to like them on Facebook by clicking here. And Washington County friends – WashCo is mentioned, and data is available. Check it out.
After a 30-month analysis, investigative reporters and documentarians Joshua Pribanic and Melissa Troutman have uncovered nine ways that officials at the Department of Environmental Protection have kept drinking water contamination across Pennsylvania “off the books” since fracking began in 2004.
The pair are the co-founders of the investigative news nonprofit Public Herald and produced the fracking documentary Triple Divide (2013) which featured their initial investigations of water contamination related to oil and gas operations.
Public Herald’s latest analysis of 200 DEP investigations in five key townships found that the department “grossly mishandled” a significant percentage of its water contamination cases between 2009 and 2012.
Public Herald refers to these mishandled cases as “cooked,” meaning there’s reason to believe that DEP’s determination can be challenged and possibly reversed.
The news outfit obtained and released 2,309 records of DEP complaint investigations in an online, open-source project called #fileroom (PublicFiles.org), where interactive maps are searchable by county and township and all files can be viewed, printed and shared.
The majority of the records, 1275, are complaints about drinking water, while the remaining 1034 cases are considered general complaints but can also be water related.
Washington County recorded the highest number of complaints at 667 cases, while Bradford County had the second highest of 520 on file with 398 cases being drinking water investigations.
“We initially asked for these files in 2011, but complaints were ‘confidential’,“ explained Troutman. “When I asked again in 2012, an attorney from DEP’s Southwest Regional Office told me that Deputy Secretary Scott Perry didn’t want the number of complaints to ‘cause alarm.‘ Now, we know why. In Washington County alone, there are 667 complaint investigations on record from 2004 to the spring of 2015.“
Around month twenty-eight of this investigation Public Herald received a paper from a veteran DEP employee, who wishes to remain anonymous, with everything blacked out except one paragraph. It read “DEP retention policy.” In a paragraph about “Complaints,” the document revealed that the Department should only hold complaint records for five years – “then shred.”
Public Herald was told only records which could be considered “useful” would be kept on file and turned into microfilm. “Useful” meant those listed in DEP’s 260 positive determinations, leaving thousands of investigations to be discarded.
Public Herald’s investigative report includes one water contamination case wherein DEP changed a 2014 determination after environmental attorney Nick Kennedy of Mountain Watershed Association directly challenged the Department’s conclusions by pointing out its flawed investigation.
“We know fracking operations contaminate water; it’s a matter of where and when,” said Troutman. “Without this data, there’s no way for the public to know where and to what extent the Department is failing to address contamination. #fileroom finally creates a map so citizens, scientists, health professionals and journalists know where to look.”
By visiting #fileroom, residents can click their county or township and search their home address to find water contamination complaints nearby. Records for 17 counties across the shale extraction zone in Pennsylvania are available now.
Public Herald continues to collect complaint records and plans to release data for all counties with fracking in early 2016.
View more here: http://PublicHerald.org and here: http://PublicHerald.org/invisible-hand/.
Public Herald offers paid training in its #fileroom project so citizens can access and contribute their ownrecords to help create transparency and aggregate records concerning fracking. Visit http://PublicFiles.org for more information.