Grand jury report on fracking indicts the state

15 Jul 2020 | 12:56

(AP) Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro’s latest grand jury report might seem like a diatribe on the evils of fracking. That is definitely what draws attention. The problem is that is only half the story. The other half is the failings of government.

As attorney general, Shapiro has made a point of being tough on fracking, and the grand jury report delivered last month certainly does that. Its 243 pages cite violations, allege medical fallout and recommend criminal charges against the companies involved. As a matter of law, any industry found to harm lives and degrade the community will face consequences. But that is where the failings of government play a role. “Our investigation . convinced us that (the Department of Environmental Protection) did not take sufficient action in response to the fracking boom, and even now, more than a decade after it began, must do more to fully address the special challenges posed by the industry,’’ the report stated.

Shapiro’s report alleges that rather than acting as a regulatory agency, following up on the way fracking companies were treating the land, air and water, “some DEP employees saw the job more as serving the industry.’’ The job of all state employees is to serve the people. Industry does not need to be viewed as the enemy, whether the agency is DEP or PennDOT or the Department of Health. The mission statement is to protect the people, to ensure their safety, to make their lives better. That is the difference between the government and a company that serves an owner or stockholders or a board of directors.

A company doesn’t have to be evil to have a different goal -- and that goal is to produce a product and make money. That’s not a bad goal. Over the last 10 or so years, it has provided a lot of jobs and put money into the pockets of Pennsylvania landowners. But it isn’t an industry’s job to police itself. We don’t expect speeding drivers to stop themselves and write their own tickets. We shouldn’t expect a business will volunteer to conduct itself in a way that may cut into profits or slow down production. The government sends health inspectors to restaurants and nursing homes. The government makes sure deli scales and gas pumps are properly calibrated. Fracking should be no different.

In the four years of Tom Corbett’s time as governor, there were 11,821 inspections conducted. That sounds like a lot until you hear Gov. Tom Wolf’s administration had more than 16,000 per year. The Department of Health has little information on what the health impacts of fracking might be. The grand jury report blames the department itself for this, as no research has been done.

Pennsylvania is built on energy and industry. It has faced decades of impact on the environment and the people. Acid drainage from coal mining and even road construction has required mitigating to counteract. Pennsylvanians still suffer from black lung disease acquired in mines. The state should know there are things to study. The industry takes issue with Shapiro’s report, which the Marcellus Shale Coalition said “fails to identify any specific instance that substantiates its claims of impacts.’’ More oversight would address that. Inspection, research and data can all make fracking -- or any industry -- safer and do the state’s job of serving the people.

Pittsburgh Tribune-Review