September 20, 2017

The incident at Robson well

River Reporter Editorial

We probably all agree that if gas drilling is to be done in the Upper Delaware, a precious watershed that provides fresh water to 25 million people, it needs to be done in a prudent manner, with good oversight and rapid remediation of any problems. And with that as our goal, the recent train of events at the Robson well site in Wayne County, PA are extremely troubling. The timeline of events at the Robson well suggests that the regulatory system in Pennsylvania, as it currently stands, has some dangerous gaps that must be repaired if this region is to have a reasonable hope of preserving the quality of its soil, water and air.

Gap number one is the fact that the company in question, Chesapeake Energy, LLC, did not apparently notice or report the damaged vegetation which provided the clue that contamination may have occurred. This is one type of gap we can’t ever expect to be completely closed. While there is a growing movement of some energy company stockholders to make sure that corporations act in an environmentally responsible manner, for-profit corporations are fundamentally designed to get certain jobs done and maximize profits for their shareholders; we cannot assume that they will always monitor the consequences assiduously, as was borne out only too clearly in the case of the Millennium Pipeline in Sullivan County.

It is precisely because this first type of gap can occur that regulatory agencies are necessary. But here’s where the second gap occurred: the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) did not detect the potential problem either. Their first notification came in the form of an email from Tom Kane of The River Reporter. We, in turn, only knew about the danger signals at Robson because a citizens’ group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS), took the extraordinary step of chartering an airplane to fly above the site and take photographs. This type of chain of circumstances is scarcely one that can be relied upon to be repeated in future instances. (Though it is worth noting that the Environmental Protection Agency has recently established a hotline to encourage citizen vigilance and provide a place to report problems with natural gas drilling. See page 4.)

In order to be sure to detect similar incidents, the DEP would have to have plenty of boots on the ground. But currently there is only one oil-and-gas inspector and one water-quality inspector assigned to the office overseeing the Wayne County area. Some improvement can be expected: Governor Ed Rendell has just announced that there will be funding for a substantial state-wide increase in DEP personnel. It remains to be seen, however, if the increase in inspection personnel in particular will be substantial enough to keep an adequate eye on the thousands of new wells for which applications have been filed.

Another step that might help close the gap in detecting problems would be a strict protocol for inspecting wells at the time of closure. The agency told us that it does eventually inspect completed well sites, though it also said that “there is no requirement to do so.” But the Robson case tells us that such inspections are not necessarily conducted expeditiously, which means that any problems that do occur will have time to fester, migrate or, as in the instance of air contamination, become untraceable. We also think that if the DEP does not currently have to conduct such inspections, then there should be a new law or rulemaking that makes it mandatory.

The final gap in the regulatory system revealed by the Robson well incident is in transparency. After being notified of the potential problem, the DEP did nothing to communicate either with the DCS or with the general public, via the press, about the results of its inquiry. It was only in response to a specific request of ours that we obtained the updates published in our story “Contaminant confirmed at Robson site” (see December 24, 2009 issue).

Especially in the early days of gas drilling in our area, it is crucial for regulatory agencies to be completely and proactively open with regard to any pollution problems that occur. It is only in the light of such full disclosure that the best mechanisms can be developed going forward for monitoring, preventing and, where prevention fails, remediating pollution at drilling sites.

The Robson well was only the second natural gas well drilled in our area. Statistically, that’s far from enough to conclude that we can expect a 50 percent failure rate in handling toxic-spill incidents. But it is more than enough for us to urge regulatory agencies to study and learn from the failures that occurred, and to do whatever it takes to see that the Robson mistakes are not repeated with the thousands of new wells expected to come on line.