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Frack Story Misleading, Says Pennsylvania's Hanger

A story about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking), which was published by the New York Times last weekend, was "deliberately misleading," the former chief of Pennsylvania's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) said Monday.

The story in the Times' "Drilling Down" series was written by Ian Urbina. "He had a goal to start with and he wanted to fit the information to a narrative," John Hanger told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday. "Regulation Lax as Gas Wells' Tainted Water Hits Rivers" focuses on radium in drilling wastewater, as well as regulation in Pennsylvania, which Hanger was in charge of in the Democratic administration of former Gov. Ed Rendell.

"It was willful and deliberate," Hanger said of the errors in the piece. The reporter "knew how to get on the front page. It should be actionable...The New York Times would be successfully sued in Europe for this type of story."

Hanger, who stepped down as the DEP chief when Gov. Tom Corbett took office in January, posted a lengthy response on his blog, Facts of the Day.

"We're off the charts on strengthening our regulations," Hanger told NGI's Shale Daily of DEP enforcement practices when he was in charge. "Nonetheless [Urbina] had a goal to start with and he wanted to fit the information to the narrative."

If radium from hydrofracking operations is affecting the drinking water supply, that is a legitimate issue, said Hanger, who now is special counsel for Eckert Seamans in Pennsylvania. He also runs Hanger Consulting LLC. Prior to his appointment to DEP he was head of the environmental group PennFuture.

"The only way to determine whether there are problems in the water is to test, which is a relatively easy thing to do," said Hanger. He said public water supply operators should voluntarily test the water supplies. "And if they don't voluntarily test the water, then they should be ordered to test the waters...In the event that the result is negative, we can all be pleased, and the New York Times would be delighted..."

Hanger said he questioned how the reporter obtained "confidential information from anonymous" Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sources.

"That information never reached me," he said. "Pennsylvania has the very best public employees. Dave Allard, who is quoted in the story, is a total straight arrow." Allard is director of Pennsylvania's Bureau of Radiation Protection. "When we were working on fracking issues, I asked him the pertinent questions: 'Will hydrofracking affect drilling workers, will it affect truck drivers, will it affect the public and public health?' His answer was always 'no.'

"But beliefs just aren't good enough. I drink the water in Pennsylvania. I want to know if there is radium in the water supply. We definitely ought to test it."

Hanger takes the second thrust of Urbina's story -- the lax regulation -- personally. "It permeates the story," said the former regulator. "That phrase, 'lax regulation,' is deliberately misleading. It calls into question the entire regulatory effort in Pennsylvania. He willfully left out information that would have exploded his narrative."

For example, Hanger questioned why Urbina didn't use information from a report published last September by STRONGER Inc., the State Review of Oil & Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, which said Pennsylvania's hydrofracking regulations were "overall, well managed, professional and meeting [their] program objectives" (see Daily GPI, Sept. 24, 2010).

"A lot of states don't want to open their books to STRONGER but we were delighted," Hanger said of the review. "I asked [Urbina] why he didn't include that information -- from last September -- and he said one word, 'dated.' If I could have jumped through the phone line I would have. He's looking at a three-year period. How can a report from last September be 'dated?'"

The story implied that Pennsylvania doesn't enforce its drilling regulations, he said. And that it "quite deliberately doesn't report the violations" that staff finds. To refute that claim, Hanger pointed to the enforcement actions for drilling violations imposed on EOG Resources Inc. and Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. "They had to stop drilling for months...costing them probably millions of dollars. That's not in the story."

Another problem: the reporter never interviewed Hanger, even though he is quoted in the story.

"He put words in my mouth for this story. How do I answer that? I haven't found another reporter...who hasn't been able to speak with me." Hanger contacted the reporter after reading the story and asked why he hadn't been interviewed.

"He said my perspective wasn't relevant anymore," Hanger said of the reporter's response. "I wasn't relevant? I was over DEP during the time that the [Times] investigation covered. How can I not be relevant?"

According to Hanger, Urbina said he called DEP to substantiate the comments he claims Hanger had made. "He called DEP after the governor [Corbett] had fired me, for all intents and purposes, to confirm what I said at one time. He called the new administration to confirm my words...

"In this type of situation, the truth never catches up to the lie," Hanger said. And he said he was a "willing participant in the arena...I can't whine about it. The real loss is the loss of public understanding and public information."

The Marcellus Shale Coalition (MSC) also reacted to the report.

"While raising some valid questions about water monitoring, this article -- seven months in the making -- lacks context, offers misleading comparisons and in some cases put forth information that is not supported by the facts," the MSC stated. Additional "background," which it said is "all available in the public domain...paints an entirely different picture than what was laid out by the Times..." Among other things, the MSC disputed several claims.

One "myth" is that "Pennsylvania is the only state that has allowed drillers to discharge much of their waste through sewage treatment plants into rivers," said the MSC. In fact, "Pennsylvania leads the nation in wastewater recycling," with nearly 70% produced in the Marcellus Shale wells reused or recycled. The industry, it noted, also is moving toward "100% recycling, zero discharge."

Another "myth" in the story is that "gas producers are generally left to police themselves when it comes to spills," noted the MSC. However, the coalition noted that in a DEP report, oversight staff in 2010 alone "performed nearly 5,000 inspections at Marcellus Shale drilling locations, a more than 100% increase over the previous year."

The MSC also took the Times to task for a statement indicating that hydrofracking is a "relatively new drilling method..." However, the MSC noted that in a Times article on Feb. 24, it stated that hydrofracking "has been used by drillers for around 60 years."

"Buried late" in the 3,800-word article is a paragraph noting that Pennsylvania's drilling rules today are "much stronger," noted Hanger. Stronger regulatory packages enacted while he helmed DEP "were barely or not all mentioned..." There also are "false" statements, he said.

Also quoted in the article is John Quigley, the former secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR).

"I want to be very clear on my views," said Quigley about the story. "I told the New York Times reporter -- as I have told many others in interviews and in testimony both before and after my tenure as DCNR secretary -- that I believe that John Hanger and his staff at DEP, with the support of Gov. [Ed] Rendell, did heroic work in putting into place the policies, regulations, fee increases and staffing increases...They did all of this work in record time, despite stiff opposition. Those measures have provided essential protections for Pennsylvania's water, environment and public health, and positioned Pennsylvania as the strongest state regulator of the natural gas industry.

"Had John [Hanger] continued at DEP, much more would have been done. Unfortunately, the protections that he put into place have already begun to be peeled back by the Corbett administration" (see related story).

In response to the article Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA) sent a letter to Lisa Jackson, the federal EPA administrator, requesting "immediate assistance and immediate action" in responding to the report.

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