Ask the former chief of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) what he thinks of a story last weekend in the New York Times about the dangers of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) and you will get an earful (see related coverage at shaledaily.com).
The reporter of the Times‘ first story in its “Drilling Down” series “had a goal to start with and he wanted to fit the information to a narrative,” John Hanger told NGI on Monday. The first story, “Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers” focuses on 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, Ian Urbina, “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, is more than a little upset with the story, whose main focus is on two things: radium in wastewater discharged by shale drillers, and “lax” enforcement by Pennsylvania regulators. He posted a lengthy response on his blog, Facts of the Day.
“We’re off the charts on strengthening our regulations,” Hanger told NGI 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.”
The questions about whether radium from hydrofracking operations is indeed affecting the drinking water supply 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 Penn Future.
“The only response to that issue is to test the water,” he said. “The only way to determine whether there are problems in the water is to test, which is a relatively easy thing to do.” 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…”
What interested him about the radium issue was where 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 the story — the lax regulation — personally. “It permeates the story,” he said. “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. 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.”
Hanger also claimed that Urbina misled readers by using the term “local officials” to refer to regulatory programs overseen by “state” regulators. “Obviously the word ‘local’ is different from ‘federal, state and local officials.’ But ‘state regulators’ was inconsistent with the narrative.”
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. Literally, there is only one reporter that has asked for an interview and didn’t get it,” he said of Urbina. Hanger contacted the reporter after reading the story and asked why he hadn’t been contacted.
“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.”
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