S.W. Pennsylvania is Definitely “Fractured” Among Other Places, Part 3

by Duane Nichols on March 4, 2021

Air pollution comes from multiple sources in the fracked gas industry

Fractured: Residents have been distrustful of frackers & abandoned by regulators

From an Article by Kristina Marusic, Reporter, Environmental Health News Network, March 1, 2021

This is part 3 of our 4-part series, “Fractured,” an investigation of fracking chemicals in the air, water, and people of western Pennsylvania.

WASHINGTON COUNTY, Pa.—For nearly a decade, Bryan Latkanich has been telling anyone who’d listen that allowing two fracking wells to be drilled on his farm is the worst mistake he’s ever made. “I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning. Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. It has ruined my life.”

He’s a single father on disability who leased his land in 2010 at the height of the fracking boom, thrilled to have two wells 400 feet from his home in exchange for what he thought would be millions of dollars in royalties, only to run into problem after problem.

The drilling disturbed more land than had been agreed to or permitted, which he alleges damaged the foundation of his home. He caught workers illegally pumping water out of a pit into the woods behind his property. His well water became undrinkable and he and his son Ryan, who was 2 years-old when the wells went in, developed a rash of ongoing, mysterious health issues. The royalties were a pittance compared to what he expected.

Chevron, which owned and operated the two wells, denies any responsibility for these problems, and Bryan has gotten few answers from the state agencies he’s called upon to investigate.

“I was a total cheerleader for this industry at the beginning,” Bryan told Environmental Health News (EHN). “Now I just want to make sure no one else makes the same mistake I did. This has ruined my health and my kid’s health and destroyed my farm. It has ruined my life.”

If any of this sounds familiar, it could be because parts of Bryan’s story have been told in local and national news stories. Or it could be because there are many stories like this.

In fracking towns across the state and country, people like Bryan have struggled to get answers about what’s happening on their land, in their communities—even in their bodies. The state agencies tasked with overseeing the industry and responding to citizen complaints about pollution and health issues are often under-budgeted, understaffed, and overwhelmed.

In Ohio, for example, a three-year investigation published in September 2020 by environmental advocacy group Earthworks showed that the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency and Ohio Department of Natural Resources failed to act on 39 percent of public complaints filed regarding air pollution from the oil and gas industry. The consequences are exemplified by a 2018 incident: After an explosion at an Exxon fracking well in Belmont County, Ohio, the site leaked methane at a rate of about 132 U.S. tons an hour for 20 days, ultimately emitting more of the powerful greenhouse gas than the entire oil and gas industries of France, Norway or the Netherlands do in an entire year. Methane is 84 times more climate-warming than carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Similar stories have also cropped up in Colorado, where researchers uncovered a pattern of fracking-related crimes going unreported or unacknowledged; in North Dakota, where journalists found that accidents and spills were underreported and that regulators rarely used the enforcement tools at their disposal to impose sanctions; and in Texas, where reporters revealed the industry was largely left to self-regulate.

On the federal level, fracking wells are virtually unregulated compared to other polluting industries. While oil and gas wells are technically subject to the Clean Air Act, there are no air monitoring requirements for fracking wells, so monitoring and enforcement are largely left to states.

The same goes for impacts to drinking water—part of a 2005 Bush/Cheney energy bill that’s commonly referred to as the “Halliburton Loophole” exempted natural gas drilling from the national Safe Drinking Water Act. There have been many attempts to close this loophole, but none have succeeded.

Even where federal regulations do exist, meaningful enforcement has been lacking, especially in recent years—the Trump Administration oversaw a 70 percent decrease in criminal prosecutions under the Clean Water Act and more than a 50 percent decrease in prosecutions under the Clean Air Act.

In Pennsylvania, inadequate regulatory oversight has led to criminal charges. In the summer of 2020, following a two-year grand jury investigation, state Attorney General Josh Shapiro charged fracking giants Range Resources and Cabot with environmental crimes related to leaks, pollution, and water contamination, promising that he’s still investigating “more than a dozen” criminal cases related to the oil and gas industry and that more charges are forthcoming.

The grand jury released a scathing 235-page report that documents the litany of health issues experienced by residents living near fracking sites, linking them to a long list of failures on the part of the two state agencies charged with protecting them—the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Pennsylvania Department of Health (DOH). That list includes failing to adequately regulate the industry at its outset, failing to adequately train employees to respond to complaints, failing to adequately test for safety, and failing to notify residents about problems that could impact their health in a timely manner.

The Pennsylvania DEP denies those allegations and has hired outside attorneys to respond to the ongoing criminal investigations.

The report also highlighted the problem of a “revolving door” between industry and the department—DEP employees are often hired away by the industry at a much higher pay rate, creating a clear conflict of interest. In one example, the grand jury learned that a DEP employee was hired by an oil and gas company after he’d issued the same company two improper “plugging” certificates, allowing the company to shut down wells without completing the legally required work to ensure that they were safe.

“Such career progression was not uncommon,” the report stated. “This sort of hiring created an unfortunate talent drain for DEP—but more concerning to us was the potential effect on the integrity of the Department’s investigations.”

At a press conference about the grand jury report in July, Attorney General Shapiro said “DEP and DOH have failed Pennsylvanians, particularly during the early years of the fracking boom.”

This pattern has left many residents feeling that even when their complaints are investigated, the results can’t be trusted. A 2017 investigation by Public Herald journalists found that of the more than 4,100 oil and gas-related drinking water complaints filed by residents over a 13-year period, the PA DEP ruled that water contamination occurring near wells was not related to oil and gas activity 93 percent of the time.

Bryan Latkanich’s complaints were among them. In repeated investigations over the years, the DEP acknowledged that Bryan’s water was contaminated, but ruled that Chevron—the company that drilled, operated, and recently plugged the wells on his property—was not to blame. Chevron has maintained that Bryan’s issues are coincidental and have nothing to do with their wells.

“DEP found no evidence that oil and gas activity adversely impacted Mr. Latkanich’s private water supply,” DEP spokesperson Lauren Fraley told EHN, “but did alert him to sampling results that did not meet statewide health and/or aesthetic standards for his consideration.”

Chevron spokesperson Veronica Flores-Paniagua told EHN, “We have taken Mr. Latkanich’s concerns very seriously. Chevron has thoroughly investigated Mr. Latkanich’s concerns, tested his water, and demonstrated that its operations have not affected Mr. Latkanich’s water.”

Regarding the cracks in the foundation, Flores-Paniagua said a Chevron-hired engineer found a crack in the foundation was the result of an improper design, and not because of Chevron’s operations.

Up until now, Bryan has gotten little help figuring out what’s wrong from doctors, oil and gas employees, or state agency representatives. In 2019, EHN collected urine samples, along with air and water samples, from five families in southwestern Pennsylvania—including Bryan and his son—and had them analyzed for chemicals associated with fracking.

Now for the first time, Bryan has clear evidence that he and Ryan are being exposed to harmful chemicals.

Bryan Latkanich makes breakfast in his Fredericktown, Pennsylvania, home in the summer of 2019 while Environmental Health News reporter Kristina Marusic prepares to package urine samples for freezing and shipping. (Credit: Connor Mulvaney for Environmental Health News)

EHN collected three water samples, four air monitoring samples, and six urine samples over a 5-week period from Bryan and his son Ryan, a precocious redhead who was 9 years old at the time.

We found 12 chemicals that are commonly emitted from fracking sites in one or more of their urine samples, including benzene, toluene, naphthalene, and lesser- known compounds linked to negative health impacts including respiratory and gastrointestinal problems, skin and eye irritation, organ damage, reproductive harm, and increased cancer risk.


See this Overview & Frequently Asked Questions

Fractured: FAQs — Environmental Health News Network, 2/25/21

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