Serious consequences await the state’s rapidly growing natural gas industry if companies are caught cutting corners of safety measures to pump up profits, Pennsylvania’s top environmental regulator warned Wednesday.
Environmental Protection Secretary John Hanger told a state Senate committee that companies flocking to Pennsylvania to exploit the rich Marcellus shale natural gas reserve must stop well blowouts, gas migration and water pollution.
He said he has seen examples of negligence and accidents and cited his agency’s actions to withhold new permits, stop a company’s operations or seal wells when safety is compromised.
“We need this industry to get the message from us that we expect that safety is not going to be sacrificed when those decisions have to be made, and there will be serious consequences” if it is, Hanger said.
Hanger spoke on the heels of two high-profile natural gas well accidents, one in Pennsylvania and one in West Virginia.
The Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee hearing was prompted by a well blowout in Clearfield County earlier this month that spewed natural gas and wastewater into the air for 16 hours before it was brought under control. It was incredibly lucky that a nearby engine did not ignite the gas and cause an explosion or fire, Hanger said.
Hanger declined to reveal the results so far of the investigation into the June 3 blowout, though he repeated criticism Wednesday of the apparently botched attempted by the company, Houston-based EOG Resources Inc., to contact his agency’s emergency response hot line.
He also told lawmakers the state should require drilling contractors to ensure its rig workers are certified to perform their tasks, a practice that does not always happen now, he said.
On another matter, he told senators that his agency found no violations after inspecting several Pennsylvania wells being drilled by Union Drilling, the contractor that was drilling a West Virginia well that caught fire three days after the blowout.
Hanger’s 90 minutes of testimony came a day before a state board is to vote on proposed new standards that he views as crucial to protecting public waterways from briny and chemical-laden drilling wastewater left over from the hydraulic fracturing process.
The rules would essentially ensure that little of the drilling wastewater will be processed by sewage treatment facilities and discharged into public waterways that supply drinking water.
Conventional sewage and drinking-water treatment plants aren’t equipped to remove dissolved solids such as sulfates and chlorides that saturate the well water that comes back up the well bore.
State environmental officials say the dissolved solids can kill fish and other aquatic creatures, alter the taste and smell of drinking water drawn from saturated waterways and compromise the ability of bacteria in conventional wastewater plants to break down sewage.
“People in this state will be amazed and then angry” if the rules are voted down, Hanger told reporters after the hearing. “Pennsylvania’s rivers and streams will be polluted. It’s only a question of when.”
While environmental groups and a municipal authority association support the proposal, groups representing oil, gas and chemical companies oppose it, saying among other things that the increased cost to treat water will force companies to curtail hiring.
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