PA DEP initiates air quality study following reports of poor responsiveness to complaints

by Dee Fulton on July 26, 2012

The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (PA DEP) announced the launch of a one-year ambient air monitoring project beginning on July 23, 2012 to study pollutants near permanent Marcellus gas facilities such as compressor stations and gas processing installations.  Canister samples will be tested for methane, ozone, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, hydrogen sulfide and particulate matter as well as an array of toxic compounds.

There was a spate of public attention this spring to the issue of illnesses experienced by southwestern PA shale-field residents and the reported failure of public agencies (Department of Health and DEP) to respond to complaints of headaches, nausea, vomiting, sore throats, nosebleeds, eye irritation and rashes associated with visible emissions and/or odors. Anecdotal reports such as the closure of the Cornerstone Care community clinic due to noxious fumes suspected to be related to nearby drilling fed the interest. An inquiry by the Associated Press revealed that the Pennsylvania Department of Health didn’t begin tracking health complaints possibly tied to drilling until 2011, and also noted that there were obstacles to filing an official complaint with the agency. reported in April, 2012:

“The Pennsylvania Department of Health said this week that it has received fewer than 30 complaints over the last year from people who feel natural gas drilling has affected their health, but it’s not clear how many came before that. Last June the agency head suggested it had already received several dozen.”

That article further noted that the health agency staff does not have manuals or guidelines describing how to respond to health complaints related to natural gas industry.  “This is not surprising,” said Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. “It hasn’t got enough resources to do its core job.” The health department will not receive any funding from the state’s newly legislated natural gas impact fee.

Nonprofits are attempting to take up some of the slack.  In February of this year, the McMurray-based nonprofit, Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project, was founded “to assist and support Washington County residents who believe their health has been, or could be, impacted by natural gas drilling activities.”

In June, 2012 the Clean Air Council (CAC), an environmental nonprofit,  sent a letter to the US Environmental Protection Agency requesting federal intervention i.e. asking the EPA to assist the PA DEP in it’s duty to respond to complaints about air quality.  Per the letter signed by Joseph Minott, Executive Director of the CAC, “Due to residents’ concerns about PA DEP’s inability to process and respond to complaints, the Council decided to fill in these gaps by designing an online (and hard-copy) reporting mechanism for residents’ complaints related to air quality issues of natural gas operations.” The CAC received 13 complaints in 6 months. The organization intends to submit compiled reports monthly to the EPA and other agencies.  The letter to the EPA contains charts of the symptoms associated with visible emissions and noxious odors in the 13 cases, details the frustrations of residents, and takes the PA DEP to task for it’s poor responsiveness record per resident’s reports.

Joe Osborne, Legal Director for Pittsburgh-based GASP (Group Against Smog and Pollution), applauded the commencement of the study but also noted it’s limitations.  In an email comment to FrackCheckWV, Osborne said:  ”This long-term study is a step in the right direction, but ultimately states in the Marcellus and Utica need a larger scale monitoring network to characterize shale gas emissions. Consider Texas’s network of over a dozen automated gas chromatographs.” Also Osborne noted that the study involves only 3 monitoring sites and all are owned by the same operator. “We know that there is significant variation in the environmental performance of companies operating in the Marcellus…..A single operator is unlikely to accurately reflect the varied environmental performance we see company to company.”  A link to FracTracker was provided in support of this assertion.

Related Story Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported recently  The Lung Association’s State of the Air 2012 report, released this morning, again ranks the eight-county Pittsburgh-New Castle metropolitan area among the 25 most polluted regions in the U.S. for ozone and fine airborne particle pollution. But the gas industry’s role in contributing to ozone through the burden of nitrogen oxides is grist for another post, another day.

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