Pa. studies on shale-site air emissions incomplete, according to court documents

Three widely cited state studies of air emissions at Marcellus Shale gas development sites in Pennsylvania omit measurements of key air toxics and calculate the health risks of just two of more than two dozen pollutants.

State regulators and the shale gas drilling industry over the past four years have repeatedly used the regional studies to support their positions that air emissions from drilling, fracking wastewater impoundments and compressor stations don’t pose a public health risk.

The revelations about the shortcomings of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s short-term air sampling reports are contained in sworn depositions by two DEP air program employees who worked on them.

Those documents were filed in a Washington County Common Pleas Court civil case in which three families allege that air and water pollution from Range Resources’ Yeager drilling and 13.5-million gallon fracking wastewater impoundment in Washington County made them sick.

In a parallel case, now before the state Environmental Hearing Board, one of those individuals, Loren Kiskadden, has appealed a DEP ruling that myriad spills and leaks at the Yeager drill site and impoundment did not contaminate his well water supply a half mile away.

“The DEP’s willingness to allow Pennsylvania’s citizens to continue to rely upon what it knows to be an inaccurate air study is unacceptable and completely contrary to the department’s obligations to the public,” said John Smith, who with his wife, Kendra Smith, is representing Mr. Kiskadden in the case before the EHB and the property owners in the civil case.

According to the Washington County court documents filed in August, concentrations of 25 airborne chemicals that the DEP’s field laboratory truck parked near the Yeager drill site in rural Amwell Township measured were mis-reported or not reported to administrators in Harrisburg who wrote the air quality report for southwestern Pennsylvania in December 2010.

Linda Hreha, a chemist in DEP’s mobile analytical section who did the air sampling on which all three of the state’s regional air quality reports are based, testified in her deposition on Dec. 5, 2013, that she measured but did not report elevated concentrations of air contaminants at the Yeager impoundment, including 1,2,4-trimethylbenzene at 550 parts per billion; methane at 1.2 parts per million; and methyl mercaptan at 1 part per million, twice the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommended exposure limit.

Because the depositions indicate DEP used the same data reporting procedures for shale gas pollution reports in 2011 in the North-central and Northeast regions of the state, the validity of those reports are also called into question.

In all three reports, the DEP failed to calculate the health hazard for 25 of 38 chemicals it tested for but still concluded that the levels of those air pollutants that the shale gas development sites emitted were not likely to trigger air-related health concerns, she testified.

Not only did the DEP not calculate the vast majority of chemical hazards, but its determination that public health would not be harmed was not made by anyone with training in medicine, toxicology or environmental or occupational health, according to Nick Lazor, chief of the DEP’s Air Quality Monitoring Division, who oversaw production of the reports and was deposed on Jan. 17, 2014.

Although the DEP air pollutant sampling was supposed to be following protocols from air testing done in Texas’ Barnett Shale gas and oil field, Mr. Lazor testified in his deposition that the department couldn’t test for two chemicals, acrylamide and glutaraldehyde.

The first is a carcinogen and the second a potent toxin.

Both have been used in hydraulic fracturing fluid and were detected in emissions at Barnett shale gas drilling and fracking sites in Texas.

Though the DEP acknowledged in the shale gas air pollution reports and again Sunday in response to questions that the reports were intended to provide only a “snapshot” of air contaminants on the day they were measured, state environmental officials in Republican and Democratic administrations and drilling industry spokesmen have used them more broadly to allay public health concerns and justify regulatory restraint.

Michael Krancer, Gov. Tom Corbett’s first DEP secretary, referenced the studies in testimony opposing federal regulation of the shale gas industry before U.S. House committees in November 2011 and May 2012 in Washington, D.C., and before a state House Policy Committee in February 2012.

Just last month, Travis Windle, a spokesman for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry lobbying group, cited the air monitoring studies when he questioned the objectivity of Yale University researchers whose study found greater numbers of illnesses near shale gas drilling sites.

Also last month the DEP, in a letter to the Mars Parent Group, twice referenced the short-term studies to justify its decision to approve a permit for R.E. Gas Development LLC, a subsidiary of State College-based Rex Energy, to drill and hydraulically fracture a Marcellus Shale gas well a half-mile from the Mars Area School District campus and its 3,200 students in Middlesex Township, Butler County.

Local residents, the Clean Air Council and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network have appealed that permit decision to the state Environmental Hearing Board.

“Speaking as a parent, it’s a concern that the DEP continues to rely on studies done in 2010 and 2011 and shown to be inaccurate, incomplete and inconclusive,” said Amy Nassif of the Mars Parent Group, to whom the DEP letter was addressed.

“Those studies don’t consider vulnerable populations like our children and aren’t applicable to what’s going on around the mars School District campus in 2014.”

S. Craig Lobins, who wrote the letter and is the DEP’s northwest district oil and gas manager, declined a request for comment.

Morgan Wagner, a DEP spokeswoman, did not address questions about the department’s use of the reports to justify its siting decision near the Mars schools.

She said the DEP has been a leader in implementing strict emissions controls for shale gas development and is working on a new long-term air pollution monitoring study that will be finished this fall.

“There certainly is a big question about whether the DEP did a good job on those studies,” said Joseph Minott, an attorney and executive director of the Clean Air Council, a Philadelphia-headquartered environmental organization that is an appellant in the appeal of the Rex Energy permit filed with the state Environmental Hearing Board.

“A cynic would say the DEP did what it wanted to do with the air studies to get the result it wanted, and it wanted to prove the pollution was minimal and set the testing protocol to get that result.”

Don Hopey: or 412-263-1983.

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