Scroggins, who was one of the first to demand specific information from inspectors' reports that could connect fracking operations with water pollution, says to get some of the information she has to drive more than two and a half hours from her home in Susquehanna County to the DEP Williamsport office--and, even then, finds much of the critical information buried in paper files.
Scroggins and Bloom say it was easier to get information from the DEP prior to Tom Corbett becoming governor in 2011 and proclaiming he wanted to see Pennsylvania become the Texas of the natural gas industry. Bloom, executive director of Protecting Our Waters, Philadelphia, calls DEP actions, "incredibly inappropriate and incredibly frustrating."
The DEP also routinely includes the data of only certain possible contaminants, not all contaminants, in reports it provides to homeowners who question water pollution on their property. Bloom has worked with numerous people who "told me they often waited a year or more just to get results, or just partial results; in many cases, there wasn't even a response." Environmentalists have questioned DEP's research methods and attacked the agency for this lack of transparency.
The DEP has also refused to meet with any group it
doesn't agree with or like. The DEP refused to send representatives to a
hearing scheduled in February by State Reps. Jesse White (D-Cecil) and Mike
Sturla (D-Lancaster ) to discuss DEP's water testing policies. The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, in an editorial
published two days after the hearing, observed:
" By refusing to attend, DEP merely confirms its
own arrogance in the minds of some, divides Pennsylvanians further and
encourages the suspicion that the agency may be not only a poor enforcer of
regulations but also too cowardly to face its critics."
The DEP had scheduled and then cancelled a meeting with 11 organizations that focus upon water issues. Bloom says the DEP cancelled the meeting because it wouldn't discuss anything if representatives from Clean Water Action, one of the nation's largest and most effective environmental groups, were present. No meetings have been scheduled since the November request.
Like Scroggins, Bloom, and many others, the media have also found recent DEP information policies to be difficult and frustrating. CNN reporter Erica Fink says DEP refused several requests for interviews. To get any information "required a visit to the regional DEP office [in Williamsport, Pa.], which had to be scheduled weeks in advance" and the information was "largely in legal and technical language."
The Times-Tribune of Scranton, Pa., had requested the DEP to provide records that could disclose water contamination from fracking operations of natural gas companies. The DEP, reported Laura Legere, "repeatedly argued in court filings . . . that it does not count how many determination letters it issues, track where they are kept in its files or maintain its records in a way that would allow a comprehensive search for the letters, so there is no way to assess the completeness of the released documents." The Pennsylvania Commonwealth Court in July 2012, almost 11 months after Legere and her newspaper first requested DEP records, ruled the DEP must provide that information; the DEP, after the Court rejected its argument for reconsideration, eventually complied. Judge Anne E. Covery, in writing the court's majority opinion, dismissed DEP's argument that getting the requested data was burdensome. "[T]he burden on DEP comes not from some vast array of documents requested by Legere," wrote Judge Covery, "but from DEP's method of tracking its records." The court determined that "an agency's failure to maintain the files in a way necessary to meet its obligations under the RTKL [Right to Know Law] should not be held against the requestor. To so hold would permit an agency to avoid its obligations under the RTKL simply by failing to orderly maintain its records."
The failure to maintain records in an easily searchable method continues to allow the DEP to withhold public information from the public by burying the requested data within piles of irrelevant documents, most of which need interpretation from scientists.
Eric Shirk, Gov. Corbett's director of communications, and Kevin Sunday, DEP deputy press secretary, did not return several phone calls inquiring about DEP public disclosure policies.
[Dr. Brasch is an award-winning journalist, a syndicated columnist, radio network commentator, author of 17 books. His latest book is Fracking Pennsylvania, available at amazon.com, greeleyandstone.com, or your local bookstore.]