As in Texas, citizens in Pennsylvania play an important role in alerting agencies to potential violations. As seen in the table, in the years 2007 through 2011 approximately 2,890 oil and gas inspections took place because of complaints. Violations were found as a result of more than 700 of these complaint-driven DEP inspections.
Inspections conducted in response to complaints (2007-2011) Click chart for larger, footnoted version
While DEP keeps a database of inspections that occur as a result of complaints, it does not have a publicly accessible database on oil-and-gas-related complaints. As a result, it is difficult to find important information such as date and location, the nature of the complaint, and whether or not complaints have been resolved.
As important as citizens are in alerting DEP to violations, the relationship between citizens and DEP staff is not always positive. We have received frequent reports from citizens in Pennsylvania that they have filed complaints with DEP (either by calling the complaint hotline or filing a complaint on-line) but never heard back from the agency, or were contacted once with no follow up. In other cases, the agency failed to respond to complaints in a timely manner (e.g., DEP inspected a spill complaint days after it occurred, and after rains had washed away the bulk of the material, or days after odors from compressor stations had ceased).
Other citizens have been met by DEP employees who refuse to answer questions about their procedures. In addition, in most cases, DEP does not communicate with potentially affected citizens as to whether and when problems have been remediated. Many citizens, frustrated and unsure of their rights in these situations, hesitate to file new complaints with the state, and may not know whether potentially dangerous conditions remain. In short, there is a significant level of distrust of DEP’s willingness and ability to follow up on complaints.
DEP should foster relationships with communities by ensuring that citizens’ complaints are taken seriously and are resolved in a timely manner. Part of strengthening relationships involves increasing transparency by creating a publicly accessible database that documents all complaints, and includes information on how DEP responds to, and resolves, citizen complaints and reported problems at sites.
Public lacks access to important data
In January 2012, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) released an on-line database that has made some data on oil and gas wells much more publicly accessible. The Oil and Gas Compliance Report system enables the public to access data on inspections, violations, and enforcement actions taken in the state.
Oil and Gas Compliance Report data appear to change quite frequently – even data from previous years. For example, data downloaded on February 28, 2012 showed 16,472 inspections in 2010, while data downloaded on March 20, 2012 showed 15,368 inspections that for same year.
Detailed information on inspections is lacking. For example, there is no direct access to inspection reports, as there is in Colorado.
Information on individual wells, such as copies of permits or other well-related files, is not available on-line as it is in states like Colorado, New Mexico, and Ohio.
DEP does not have a publicly accessible spills database as exists in Colorado and New Mexico, nor a database of blowouts and well control problems, as exists in Texas.
Nor does DEP have a publicly accessible database of citizen complaints like Colorado, nor does DEP public statistics on citizen complaints like Texas or Colorado.
So, when it comes to public transparency there are significant gaps in DEP’s on-line information system.
Box 1: How many active oil and gas wells are in Pennsylvania?
Active well typically refers to an oil or gas well that has not been permanently plugged, or has only been temporarily plugged or shut-in. Knowing the number of active wells is important. These wells should be regularly monitored by oil and gas agencies, because they present a potential risk to the environment and public health if not properly operated or maintained.
Some states like Texas and Colorado track the number of active and inactive wells, and publish annual statistics on these types of wells. The number of active wells in Pennsylvania, however, is hard to determine. DEP does not publish statistics on active wells in Pennsylvania.