DEP Manipulates Law on Fracking Complaint, Leaves Family Without Water
It’s day one and Christine Pepper’s family has no water. There’s no water for the family to drink, to shower or wash their clothes so they’re making calls to inlaws and saving single gallon plastic jugs. It’s day one, and the Pepper family has 45 days until they know what’s happened. It started when Christine splashed water on her face from the kitchen faucet and a burning sensation shot through her skin. “It felt like my face was on fire for 20 minutes,” she said. Later red bumps developed. Not shortly after there was no water at all. The Pepper's spring-fed well, which had produced water for more than 50 years, went completely dry.
“I’m not saying we’ve never had low water," explains Christine’s husband Cory, "but it always comes right back, but it’s stayed dry for two weeks. And ... I’ve never seen it! I’m 42, I’ve lived here 42 years, and my Dad was 18 when he bought this house.”
The Peppers live on Southside Road in Leroy Twp. Bradford County, where Public Herald reported on drinking water problems in the documentary Triple Divide. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has pending Gas Migration Investigation (GMI) cases throughout the area, with Leroy Twp. being famous for two GMI’s in the last three years: the Atgas 2H well blowout in April 2011, and the Morse 5H well subsurface problems in 2012. Both wells are within three miles of each other.
Cory and Christine Pepper live 1,000 feet from the Morse 5H well and 3 miles from the Atgas 2H well, each operated by Chesapeake Energy Corporation.
According to DEP, the Morse 5H well is currently in “inactive status” due to regulatory procedures. But, there’s a second well on the pad—the 3H—which the Peppers were told was put into production the same week their well went dry. “They opened up the [3H] well and the next day we have problems,” told Cory, who happens to work locally for the gas industry but has been skeptical that fracking had anything to do with stories of water contamination in the area.
The phrase “opened up” is another way of saying the gas well went “on line” or into production. Essentially, the company pulls a plug and the gas is released, ready to go to market. When Cory saw his family’s spring dry up, and found out that the 3H well had been put online, he and Christine did the only thing to do; they called DEP to submit a complaint. Once a homeowner submits a drinking water complaint the Department has 45 days to make a determination about whether oil and gas activities have impacted the water supply. The complaint gets a number, the Pepper’s is #302587, and day one for DEP starts on the receipt of the complaint. But it’s hardly ever cut and dry. Christine talked to DEP on a Friday but as Cory puts it, “They told her it was an inconvenience for them to come out and test it on a Friday. So, they came out Tuesday [Feb. 11]. That was day one with DEP.”
As Christine recalls, “DEP came that day [Tuesday] and told me that bare minimum it would be 45 days to several years before they come up with a conclusive decision. And the one gentleman told me that it was highly unlikely it had anything to do with the drilling over there.” The Pepper family is no stranger to DEP or impacts from fracking. Christine’s mother is Carolyn Knapp, and Carolyn has spent years educating Bradford County about the impacts from drilling while criticizing DEP for how they handle water complaints. So since this isn’t Carolyn’s first water rodeo, Christine had her mother act as the liaison for her complaint.
Public Herald started collecting DEP complaint files when they first became available in Spring 2013; in previous years no one could access complaints. DEP files complaints into two categories: water complaints and general complaints. Water complaints deal mostly with drinking water. General complaints deal with everything else; however that doesn't mean that general complaints don't also deal with water. As of June 2013 Public Herald found Bradford County had 285 water supply complaints. Of those, 10 complaints were filed for Leroy Twp., seven being water complaints. The remaining three general complaints have at least two concerning drinking water from spills; one involving a 4,700 gallon spill of hydrochloric acid, a component of fracking fluid, on July 4, 2013.
To see all of the Bradford County complaint files visit Public Herald’s new #fileroom website. Carolyn knows about these complaints, “The neighbors have had … ” Christine interjects, “black water, no water, methane water.”
Now that Christine is having to communicate with DEP she’s beginning to experience the stories her mother talked about. “I felt like they were questioning my integrity. DEP made me feel like I was wrong for believing [the well pad] has anything to do with it. And said if I wasn’t going to cooperate they weren’t going to help me … completely disregarding the fact that I have no water.”
Herein lies one part of the problem with complaint investigations: DEP's discriminatory attitude and treatment of citizens who report water problems. As Carolyn explains, "A lot of other people would say forget about it, and it’s not worth the hassle.”
“There should be a provision in the law that requires them to supply water,” says Carolyn. “They don’t understand for 45 days what it’s like to live out of a bottle.” But there is a provision. Pennsylvania Act 13 provides the “presumption of liability” clause under section 3218 which holds the industry liable for supplying water to nearby complaints and gives DEP 45 days to conduct and complete an investigation.
“Operators found to have impacted a water supply within the time and distance provisions of the presumption of liability must supply temporary potable water until the supply is restored or replaced.” (DEP)
However, DEP personnel changed the meaning of the law and told Carolyn in an email that the Department cannot provide Christine water and the presumption of liability only applies once DEP makes a determination before or after the 45 days.
Then on Feb. 28, Department personnel Jennifer Means sent Carolyn another email stating that DEP can require a company to provide a temporary water supply on day one of the complaint under the presumption of liability, but only for complaints of pollution.
But Carolyn never questioned the need for sampling of the water supply. She questioned how it could be done if there was no water. Carolyn told DEP on day one of the complaint that the problem was both pollution and diminution.
Means emphasized to Carolyn how the department has no evidence leading them to believe the Morse gas well could of caused Pepper’s water complaint. Chesapeake Energy made the same statements in a separate email.
Yet Public Herald uncovered documents that the Morse well has a dangerous history which the department is fully aware of but chose to ignore as evidence. Recently, the Leighton family who live near the Peppers, sued Chesapeake Energy for drinking water contamination related to the Morse 5H well. Their case references some of these problems:
The Morse 5H well is also responsible for blowing out and impacting a creek down the road on Tim Pepper's farm [Cory's brother], an incident documented in Triple Divide. With the Leighton’s case, Tim Pepper’s creek blowout, and other incidents happening within the past two years, DEP has evidence on the Morse well for the presumptive clause. But, instead they’ve left the Pepper family without water and manipulated the law.
“If they took care of the landowners and the local people you’d be so much further ahead, but they won’t. And that’s what pissed me off,” Cory protests. If the Peppers water supply turns out to be safe to drink, it doesn't restore their trust in the department or Chesapeake Energy. For complaint #302587 Christine affirms, “It’s not just my life I’m concerned about; it’s their life.”
Christine Pepper's sons watch as dirty water drips from the faucet. photo: jbpribanic
Leighton Family Lawsuit Against Chesapeake Energy Involving Morse 5H Well
Morse Well Plat
Visit EcoWatch’s FRACKING page for more related news on this topic.
By Dana M Bergstrom, Euan Ritchie, Lesley Hughes and Michael Depledge
In 1992, 1,700 scientists warned that human beings and the natural world were "on a collision course." Seventeen years later, scientists described planetary boundaries within which humans and other life could have a "safe space to operate." These are environmental thresholds, such as the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and changes in land use.
The Good and Bad News<p><span>Ecosystems consist of living and non-living components, and their interactions. They work like a super-complex engine: when some components are removed or stop working, knock-on consequences can lead to system failure.</span></p><p>Our study is based on measured data and observations, not modeling or predictions for the future. Encouragingly, not all ecosystems we examined have collapsed across their entire range. We still have, for instance, some intact reefs on the Great Barrier Reef, especially in deeper waters. And northern Australia has some of the most intact and least-modified stretches of savanna woodlands on Earth.</p><p><span>Still, collapses are happening, including in regions critical for growing food. This includes the </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/importance-murray-darling-basin/where-basin" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Murray-Darling Basin</a><span>, which covers around 14% of Australia's landmass. Its rivers and other freshwater systems support more than </span><a href="https://www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/[email protected]/latestproducts/94F2007584736094CA2574A50014B1B6?opendocument" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">30% of Australia's food</a><span> production.</span></p><p><span></span><span>The effects of floods, fires, heatwaves and storms do not stop at farm gates; they're felt equally in agricultural areas and natural ecosystems. We shouldn't forget how towns ran out of </span><a href="https://www.mdba.gov.au/issues-murray-darling-basin/drought#effects" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">drinking water</a><span> during the recent drought.</span></p><p><span></span><span>Drinking water is also at risk when ecosystems collapse in our water catchments. In Victoria, for example, the degradation of giant </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/logging-must-stop-in-melbournes-biggest-water-supply-catchment-106922" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Mountain Ash forests</a><span> greatly reduces the amount of water flowing through the Thompson catchment, threatening nearly five million people's drinking water in Melbourne.</span></p><p>This is a dire <em data-redactor-tag="em">wake-up</em> call — not just a <em data-redactor-tag="em">warning</em>. Put bluntly, current changes across the continent, and their potential outcomes, pose an existential threat to our survival, and other life we share environments with.</p><p><span>In investigating patterns of collapse, we found most ecosystems experience multiple, concurrent pressures from both global climate change and regional human impacts (such as land clearing). Pressures are often </span><a href="https://besjournals.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/1365-2664.13427" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">additive and extreme</a><span>.</span></p><p>Take the last 11 years in Western Australia as an example.</p><p>In the summer of 2010 and 2011, a <a href="https://theconversation.com/marine-heatwaves-are-getting-hotter-lasting-longer-and-doing-more-damage-95637" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">heatwave</a> spanning more than 300,000 square kilometers ravaged both marine and land ecosystems. The extreme heat devastated forests and woodlands, kelp forests, seagrass meadows and coral reefs. This catastrophe was followed by two cyclones.</p><p>A record-breaking, marine heatwave in late 2019 dealt a further blow. And another marine heatwave is predicted for <a href="https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2020/dec/24/wa-coastline-facing-marine-heatwave-in-early-2021-csiro-predicts" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">this April</a>.</p>
What to Do About It?<p><span>Our brains trust comprises 38 experts from 21 universities, CSIRO and the federal Department of Agriculture Water and Environment. Beyond quantifying and reporting more doom and gloom, we asked the question: what can be done?</span></p><p>We devised a simple but tractable scheme called the 3As:</p><ul><li>Awareness of what is important</li><li>Anticipation of what is coming down the line</li><li>Action to stop the pressures or deal with impacts.</li></ul><p>In our paper, we identify positive actions to help protect or restore ecosystems. Many are already happening. In some cases, ecosystems might be better left to recover by themselves, such as coral after a cyclone.</p><p>In other cases, active human intervention will be required – for example, placing artificial nesting boxes for Carnaby's black cockatoos in areas where old trees have been <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/biodiversity/threatened/publications/factsheet-carnabys-black-cockatoo-calyptorhynchus-latirostris" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">removed</a>.</p><p><span>"Future-ready" actions are also vital. This includes reinstating </span><a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/a-burning-question-fire/12395700" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultural burning practices</a><span>, which have </span><a href="https://theconversation.com/australia-you-have-unfinished-business-its-time-to-let-our-fire-people-care-for-this-land-135196" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">multiple values and benefits for Aboriginal communities</a><span> and can help minimize the risk and strength of bushfires.</span></p><p>It might also include replanting banks along the Murray River with species better suited to <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/gardening/factsheets/my-garden-path---matt-hansen/12322978" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">warmer conditions</a>.</p><p>Some actions may be small and localized, but have substantial positive benefits.</p><p>For example, billions of migrating Bogong moths, the main summer food for critically endangered mountain pygmy possums, have not arrived in their typical numbers in Australian alpine regions in recent years. This was further exacerbated by the <a href="https://theconversation.com/six-million-hectares-of-threatened-species-habitat-up-in-smoke-129438" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">2019-20</a> fires. Brilliantly, <a href="https://www.zoo.org.au/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Zoos Victoria</a> anticipated this pressure and developed supplementary food — <a href="https://theconversation.com/looks-like-an-anzac-biscuit-tastes-like-a-protein-bar-bogong-bikkies-help-mountain-pygmy-possums-after-fire-131045" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Bogong bikkies</a>.</p><p><span>Other more challenging, global or large-scale actions must address the </span><a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iICpI9H0GkU&t=34s" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">root cause of environmental threats</a><span>, such as </span><a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41559-018-0504-8" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">human population growth and per-capita consumption</a><span> of environmental resources.</span><br></p><p>We must rapidly reduce greenhouse gas emissions to net-zero, remove or suppress invasive species such as <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1111/mam.12080" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">feral cats</a> and <a href="https://theconversation.com/the-buffel-kerfuffle-how-one-species-quietly-destroys-native-wildlife-and-cultural-sites-in-arid-australia-149456" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">buffel grass</a>, and stop widespread <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-reduce-fire-risk-and-meet-climate-targets-over-300-scientists-call-for-stronger-land-clearing-laws-113172" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">land clearing</a> and other forms of habitat destruction.</p>
Our Lives Depend On It<p>The multiple ecosystem collapses we have documented in Australia are a harbinger for <a href="https://www.iucn.org/news/protected-areas/202102/natures-future-our-future-world-speaks" target="_blank">environments globally</a>.</p><p>The simplicity of the 3As is to show people <em>can</em> do something positive, either at the local level of a landcare group, or at the level of government departments and conservation agencies.</p><p>Our lives and those of our <a href="https://theconversation.com/children-are-our-future-and-the-planets-heres-how-you-can-teach-them-to-take-care-of-it-113759" target="_blank">children</a>, as well as our <a href="https://theconversation.com/taking-care-of-business-the-private-sector-is-waking-up-to-natures-value-153786" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">economies</a>, societies and <a href="https://theconversation.com/to-address-the-ecological-crisis-aboriginal-peoples-must-be-restored-as-custodians-of-country-108594" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cultures</a>, depend on it.</p><p>We simply cannot afford any further delay.</p><p><em><a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/dana-m-bergstrom-1008495" target="_blank" style="">Dana M Bergstrom</a> is a principal research scientist at the University of Wollongong. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/euan-ritchie-735" target="_blank" style="">Euan Ritchie</a> is a professor in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation, Centre for Integrative Ecology, School of Life & Environmental Sciences at Deakin University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/lesley-hughes-5823" target="_blank">Lesley Hughes</a> is a professor at the Department of Biological Sciences at Macquarie University. <a rel="noopener noreferrer" href="https://theconversation.com/profiles/michael-depledge-114659" target="_blank">Michael Depledge</a> is a professor and chair, Environment and Human Health, at the University of Exeter. </em></p><p><em>Disclosure statements: Dana Bergstrom works for the Australian Antarctic Division and is a Visiting Fellow at the University of Wollongong. Her research including fieldwork on Macquarie Island and in Antarctica was supported by the Australian Antarctic Division.</em></p><p><em>Euan Ritchie receives funding from the Australian Research Council, The Australia and Pacific Science Foundation, Australian Geographic, Parks Victoria, Department of Environment, Land, Water and Planning, and the Bushfire and Natural Hazards CRC. Euan Ritchie is a Director (Media Working Group) of the Ecological Society of Australia, and a member of the Australian Mammal Society.</em></p><p><em>Lesley Hughes receives funding from the Australian Research Council. She is a Councillor with the Climate Council of Australia, a member of the Wentworth Group of Concerned Scientists and a Director of WWF-Australia.</em></p><p><em>Michael Depledge does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.</em></p><p><em>Reposted with permission from <a href="https://theconversation.com/existential-threat-to-our-survival-see-the-19-australian-ecosystems-already-collapsing-154077" target="_blank" style="">The Conversation</a>. </em></p>
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