AP: Pa. accused of rubber-stamping gas permits

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“Do you know what that means in terms of the level of protection that they have under the law?”

Lichtinger, who performed the substantive technical analysis of drilling permit applications, shook his head, then answered no.

Lichtinger and his supervisors also acknowledged they did not take into account that Newfield’s test well would be drilled within the federally protected wild and scenic Delaware River corridor.

The geologist testified that he spent as little as a half-hour, and up to a full day, scrutinizing each individual application. His direct supervisor, Brian Babb, testified that he took an average of two minutes per application to review Lichtinger’s work. Finally, Craig Lobins, a regional manager with the oil and gas program, told plaintiffs’ attorneys he typically spent another two minutes on each application before signing off on the permit.

“What these depositions reveal is that the state is doing next to nothing in approving permits, even in the Delaware River basin, even in high quality watersheds, even in the wild and scenic river corridor,” Yeager told The Associated Press. “All together, they are spending less than 35 minutes in approving these $5 million industrial sites that have the ability to pollute the water that’s relied upon by (millions of) people. It is unconscionable.”

But Yeager said he didn’t fault the DEP rank-and-file.

“They’ve got limited time to do a massive job. What we have allowed DEP to do is to terribly understaff this permitting process,” he said. “If we’re getting it wrong in this case, we’re getting it wrong for every well site that’s being developed.”

State law generally requires DEP to process applications within 45 days. It’s DEP policy to give drilling companies their money back if they fail to consider permits in a timely fashion. Permit fees for Marcellus Shale wells _ raised recently to pay for additional enforcement staff _ cost between $900 and $3,000, depending on the depth of the well bore.

Citing the lawsuit, former DEP Secretary John Hanger declined to comment on the specifics of the depositions, or on the sufficiency of the permit review process. But he pointed out that overall staffing in the oil and gas division increased from 88 in 2008 to 202 in 2010, and that some of those positions were in permit review.

“The staffing issues are ones the department needs to review constantly as this industry evolves and changes,” said Hanger, who left office in January when Republican Gov. Tom Corbett took office.

Hanger repeated his call for modernization of Pennsylvania’s 25-year-old oil and gas law. He also touted a new regulation that mandates 150-foot buffers from pristine waterways, meant to protect more than 25,000 miles of high-quality streams and rivers. However, that regulation largely exempted oil and gas wells, requiring only that they leave existing buffers undisturbed “to the extent practicable.”

DEP awarded a drilling permit to Newfield last May. It was among a handful of exploratory wells grandfathered by the Delaware River Basin Commission, a federal-interstate agency that monitors water supplies for 15 million people, including half the population of New York City. DRBC has declared a moratorium on almost all Marcellus Shale drilling in the watershed while it drafts regulations.

The Newfield well was sunk about 300 feet from Hollister Creek, whose legal designation as high quality means it supports an abundance of fish and other wildlife. In November, DEP site inspectors found deficiencies in Newfield’s erosion and sedimentation control plan and required the company to make fixes.

The plaintiffs, which include the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability and three nearby property owners, have appealed Newfield’s DEP permit to the state Environmental Hearing Board. They want the well decommissioned and the site restored to its original state. A hearing on the appeal is scheduled for late May.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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