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Ridge Runs Into Arms of Gas Industry; DEP Finds 565 Violations Jan – June 2010

August 2, 2010

Former Pennsylvania Governor Tom Ridge, along with two of his former gubernatorial campaign managers, signed a $900,000 contract on July 30 to go to bat for the heavily polluting Marcellus Shale gas drilling industry.  Ridge’s contract follows on the heels of an exodus from the Rendell administration to the cash-rich industry.  Three top Rendell staff members have jumped ship to work in governmental relations jobs for the industry over the past year.

Fracturing shale to release gas requires deep drilling “unconventional” technology, new since 2005 when it won Bush-era exemptions from most federal environmental laws.  The process uses about 20,000 pounds of toxic chemicals per gas well to drill the Marcellus Shale, a formation which lies under 63% of Pennsylvania.

Over 1000 instances of water contamination have been documented across the country due to shale gas drilling.  In Pennsylvania, the Department of Environmental Protection found 565 violations at Marcellus Shale gas drilling sites between Jan. 1 and June 18 this year alone, with only 1,458 wells drilled.  According to an analysis by Clean Water Action released last week, these violations include particularly disturbing instances, including improper cementing/casing of wells (11) and “illegal disposal of industrial waste” (80).

In this context, the industry is only too delighted to have the help of governors, former governors, and their staff.  In an interview about Ridge’s lucrative contract on Friday, the Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC), which represents most of the companies now drilling for shale gas in Pennsylvania, clarified that Ridge himself will “not be lobbying”:  “The Governor [Ridge] is joining as strategic advisor.”  MSC spokesman Travis Windle said, “The Governor will be very visible, so active, personally taking the industry’s message about workplace safety and environmental safety, and national security, educating stakeholders, elected officials, and the media.”

“Right now we’re just focused on getting the Governor out and about,” he said.

According to Mr. Windle, Ridge will help “build coalitions.”  Asked who will be in these coalitions, he specified, “A great deal of education still needs to occur about the benefits of drilling – landowners, who are seeing benefits more directly than anyone else; and small business owners, who are part of an extensive supply chain.”

This “extensive supply chain” involves taking a page from the tobacco industry playbook.  Big Tobacco routinely used high multipliers in order to inflate the number of jobs they claimed would be lost due to tobacco control.  The increasingly aggressive Pennsylvania gas drilling lobby appears to argue that it’s urgent to drill fast, before a single cumulative impact study is assessed, before the EPA studies the risk to drinking water, and before the Safe Drinking Water Act is restored, for the sake of these indirect jobs, which the industry pays Penn State professors to exaggerate.  In circular  fashion, the Marcellus Shale Coalition then refers to studies they themselves funded as “Penn State studies.”

Revolving Door Spins

One-third of the contract will go to the Ridge Policy Group, under which Ridge’s two former gubernatorial campaign managers will now lobby for the Marcellus Shale industry.  According to Common Cause, the industry has already poured over $7 million into Pennsylvania lobbying and direct campaign contributions.  Nationally, the industry is also lobbying hard against restoring the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Asked about the 565 violations found so far this year, Mr. Windle said, “those numbers don’t reflect how seriously the drillers take environmental safety.  I don’t have them in front of me, but many of them have to do with signage.  A lot of them are about is something properly marked.  A majority of them do not pose any threat to the environment and workforce.”

In fact, out of the 565 violations in the first six months of this year, 64 are administrative, recordkeeping, or posting violations.

Four workers have died in gas drilling accidents in Pennsylvania so far this year.  The number of injuries and illnesses is not known.  A union organizer asked this reporter in January, “Do you know why my workers at Marcellus Shale sites are getting skin lesions?”  A Marcellus Shale gas drilling crew in West Virginia ignited a huge explosion and fire June 7th, burning seven workers.  The company which runs that operation, which violated its drilling permit, also operates 249 wells in Pennsylvania.

According to Clean Water Action’s analysis of  DEP figures for the first six months of this year, the largest number, 166, is “General Violations” meaning violations of the Clean Streams Law, Oil and Gas Act, and permit violations.

The next largest category is “Frac Pit violations,” meaning leaks, improper construction, and other problems with frack pits.  These open pits, which DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun suggested in January should be outlawed in Pennsylvania, hold millions of gallons of toxic waste.  Rathbun said in an interview, “They don’t make sense here, it rains and snows so much… if you have a million gallons this week, you have a million and a half next week.”  But the DEP has not required the industry to store waste in impermeable containers instead of open pits.

What’s in those frack pits?  At the end of the fracking stage they are full of millions of gallons of “flowback,” which comes up from deep underground radioactive, arsenic laden, and intensely saline as well as full of toxic fracking chemicals.  Those chemicals include pesticides, biocides, carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, and neurotoxins.

Regarding the most severe violations singled out by Clean Water Action, improper cement casing has led to the contamination of an entire nine-mile square aquifer in Dimock, PA, leading to 39 families being deprived of safe drinking water which had always been available to them from pristine private wells.  Illegal disposal means toxic waste – fracking fluid and flowback, – is dumped directly onto the ground or into waterways.  Fish kills and animal deaths in many areas of the state have been attributed by residents to illegal disposal as well as accidental spills.

Today the Pennsylvania Land Trust Association released a statement analyzing 1435 violations by Marcellus Shale drillers in Pennsylvania in the past 2.5 years.  Of these, 952 were identified as most likely to harm the environment.  Sixteen violations involve improper blowout prevention.

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