The release of the Grand Jury 2020 report on fracking sparked new debate and hope regarding the potential of new fracking legislation in Pennsylvania. The report “uncovered systematic failure by government agencies in overseeing the fracking industry and fulfilling their responsibility to protect Pennsylvanians from the inherent risk of fracking operations.” In the report, former Attorney General and current Pennsylvania governor Josh Shapiro said, “there remains a profound gap between our Constitutional mandate for clean air and pure water, and the realities facing Pennsylvanians who live in the shadow of fracking giants and their investors.” Governor Shapiro’s victory in the 2022 gubernatorial election has sparked further hope for environmentally and Pennsylvanian-friendly policies and legislation that will put the people of Pennsylvania’s health and safety first.
Research has found that counties in Pennsylvania with more fracking activity have a higher rate of infant mortality, increased hospitalization for skin and respiratory conditions, higher prevalence of asthma, and an increase in childhood leukemia. Fracking wastewater contains many elements, such as proprietary chemical additives, heavy metals, radioactive elements, and salts, that are toxic to our health and environment. Under the Pennsylvania Solid Waste Management Act (SWMA), fracking waste is treated as “residual waste,” which exempts oil and gas companies from sufficiently treating and testing the waste before disposing of it in landfills. On average, 800 tons of waste from both conventional and unconventional drilling is sent to Pennsylvanian landfills. When rainwater falls on these toxic landfills, leachate is created, which is sent to local wastewater treatment facilities, which are not equipped to treat such toxic materials, before being discharged into local water bodies. State Representative Sara Innamorato and State Senator Katie Muth have launched companion bills (HB 1353/SB 644, HB1354/SB 645, HB 1355/SB 646), which aim to close the loophole in the SWMA by classifying wastewater as “hazardous waste” under SWMA. This will put wastewater through the most stringent testing before leaving a well site and prohibit landfills from accepting and transferring fracking wastewater. If passed, these bills will stop unregulated, untreated industrial waste from ending up in Pennsylvanians’ drinking water and will protect Pennsylvanians’ constitutional right to clean water.
In addition to closing the waste loophole, the Grand Jury also recommended expanding the no-drill zones from the now-required 500 feet to 2500 feet from buildings, streams, and wetlands. This is crucial in ensuring Pennsylvanians’ health, as research has shown that methane levels in drinking water near fracking sites may be up to 17 times higher than in drinking water not near fracking sites. High methane levels in drinking water can lead to health issues such as respiratory complications, nausea, and headaches. Additionally, a larger buffer zone would minimize the chances of radiation and environmental hazards reaching and affecting the general population. Stricter setback legislation, as proposed in the Grand Jury report, would thus decrease the health risks due to fracking-induced air and water pollution. The increase from 500 to 2500 feet would further add to the requirement from 2012 Act 13, which increased the setback requirement from 200 to 500 feet.
These bills prioritize the health and safety of Pennsylvania residents and the environment over companies that makes billions of dollars by extracting the state’s natural resources. At Protect PT, we are dedicated to ensuring residents’ safety, security, and quality of life and protecting the people’s economic, environmental, and legal rights in Westmoreland and Allegheny counties. We welcome the efforts to close the waste loophole and increase the setback requirement. We are still in the beginning phase of implementing policies that put the people first, but it seems like the tide might be turning with more environmentally and people-friendly legislation on the way.