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Environment & Energy

State Senate Democrats Push For Greater Accountability From Natural Gas Industry

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Jerry McBride
/
AP

Democratic state senators are pushing proposals meant to increase accountability in the natural gas industry.

The bills come nearly a year after a statewide investigative grand jury found that state regulators failed to protect the public from the health impacts of fracking.

One bill would increase the distance gas wells must be set back from homes from 500 to 2,500 feet; for schools and hospitals, the distance would increase to 5,000 feet. Other bills would require disclosure of all chemicals used in fracking, improve air and water monitoring near gas sites, require labeling for trucks carrying fracking waste, and allow the Attorney General to prosecute cases against companies without a referral.

“There are people in this commonwealth that for plus-ten years have not had clean drinking water. That is criminal,” said Sen. Katie Muth (D-Montgomery), one of the sponsors, during a news conference on the bills Tuesday.

She added, had the proposed measures been in place before permits for shale drilling were issued, “we might be in a better place right now.”

Republicans who control the legislature are unlikely to consider the eight pieces of legislation, Senate Bills 650-657.

Sen. Gene Yaw (R-Lycoming), who chairs the Senate environmental resources and energy committee, said Pennsylvania’s standards are “among the most protective in the nation” and that the legislation is an attempt to drive the industry out of the state.

Marcellus Shale Coalition president David Callahan said the proposals jeopardize the economic and community benefits of shale gas development.

“The unconventional gas industry has long-supported efforts to ensure DEP has the resources it needs to carry out its duties effectively, transparently disclose chemical use prior to becoming law, adhere to stricter setback requirements and drive innovative water recycling practices,” Callahan said in a statement.

Last summer’s statewide grand jury report detailed numerous harms by the industry against people who live near fracking activity, including contaminated water and noxious fumes from drilling waste. It said the Department of Environmental Protection was unprepared to keep the industry in check.

DEP called it inaccurate and said newer regulations have made drilling safer.

Attorney General Josh Shapiro said the state’s standards aren’t good enough.

“There is a gap between what our constitution guarantees — that clean air and pure water — and the laws we have on the books to enforce that guarantee,” Shapiro said.

Some environmental groups commended the legislation as a critical first step in reducing harms from fracking.

“Urgent action is needed to ensure that Pennsylvanians have air to breathe and water to drink that is free from fracking’s toxic pollution,” said Zachary Barber, clean air advocate for PennEnvironment.

Others disputed whether the industry can be improved. The Better Path Coalition said it “appreciates efforts to address the important issues the Grand Jury raised, but cautions that it is not correct to suggest…that fracking can be done safely.”

This story is produced in partnership with StateImpact Pennsylvania, a collaboration among WESA, The Allegheny Front, WITF and WHYY.