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Citizen Complaints – those who speak out help uncover violations

Citizen complaints often draw attention to problematic operations that might otherwise go unmonitored for long periods of time. The Railroad Commission (RRC), the agency responsible for regulating oil and gas development in Texas, has stated that “citizens are viewed as extra eyes to help the RRC identify problems.” In 2009, the RRC received 681 complaints related to oil and gas and found 1,997 violations based on these complaints.[2]

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.[3] Violations were found as a result of more than 700 of these complaint-driven DEP inspections.

Inspections conducted in response to complaints (2007-2011)
Colorado Inspection Data
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).

Stephanie Hallowich, from the southwest Pennsylvania town of Hickory, said the DEP has downplayed or ignored her complaints about air and water contamination from a complex of gas installations near her home. In October, a compressor station experienced what she said was a sudden, violent release of gas that shook her house and filled the air around it with foul-smelling gas. . . “They have not been responsive,” she said. “There have been no violations, and they have not been keeping up with inspections.”

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.

While this system is an improvement over the previous one[4], the system is not perfect. And public access to other important DEP data is also lacking.

  • Oil and Gas Compliance Report data appear to change quite frequently[5] – 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.
  • Data on penalties is included in the Oil and Gas Compliance Report system, but the format makes it difficult to determine total annual oil- and gas-related penalties.
  • Detailed information on inspections is lacking. For example, there is no direct access to inspection reports, as there is in Colorado.[6]
  • 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.

Inactive wells, i.e., those that have been temporarily plugged or shut-in, should also be monitored, as inactive wells that are not properly plugged can become conduits for the migration of oil, gas and produced water.[7]

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.

Well data from DEP’s Oil and Gas Production database

Click chart for larger, footnoted version


Biden’s oil & gas climate order must lead to 65% methane pollution cut

January 20, 2021
Latest News