Thanks to the Times, that wish might come true. The Scranton Times Tribune in northeastern Pennsylvania reported Wednesday that “U.S. Sen. Bob Casey [D-Penn.] joined a chorus of lawmakers on Tuesday seeking additional testing of public water supplies following” the Urbina’s article:
“Alarming information has been raised that must be fully investigated,” Mr. Casey said and asked both the state Department of Environmental Protection and the federal Environmental Protection Agency to “increase inspections of Pennsylvania drinking water resources for radioactive material and to account for why sufficient inspections haven’t taken place.”
In a tacit nod to the Times, Hanger acknowledged that asking why he didn’t take such steps while he was secretary of the department “is a fair question”:
[T]he main reason is that I was not presented with information in the manner that the NYT does in this article. The NYT references confidential reports, anonymous statements supposedly made by EPA scientists, and other material that I have never seen until this article. I was informed by agency radiation experts that the radiation levels were not a threat to truck drivers, workers at sewage treatment facilities or the public. To be clear the buck stopped with me up to January 18th, 2011 and I believe the agency staff were handling this issue in a serious, careful manner. I still believe that to be in the case.
The case for action has been growing for a while, however. Urbina noted that his article built on similar investigative reporting by ProPublica and The Associated Press. When the latter published an article on January 3 about the gas industry discharging polluted wastewater via treatment plants, however, Hanger—who was still head of the Department of Environmental Protection at the time—had the same reaction he did to Urbina’s piece. In a letter to the editor of The Morning Call in Allentown, Hanger called the article “appalling” because of the “sensational premise that Pennsylvania isn’t protecting drinking water sources from drilling wastewater.”
According to a post at Hanger’s blog, he and former Pennsylvania governor Edward Rendell (a one-time “booster” of shale drilling who banned gas development on state forest land in October, only to have the order reversed by his successor in late February) submitted a similar letter to the Times on Wednesday, which will likely run soon, and attempted to contact the public editor about their grievances. (ProPublica—which has probably expended more effort than any other outlet covering the natural gas boom and shale drilling in the U.S. since it latched onto the story in 2008—featured an interesting Q&A with Hanger in February, in which he expanded on the strengths and weaknesses of Pennsylvania’s regulation and oversight.) On his blog, at least, Hanger has not taken issue with the second article in Urbina’s series, which ran on the Times’s front page on Wednesday. He is not the only one who has taken issue with the work, however.
The Knight Science Journalism Tracker’s Charlie Petit didn’t seem to have a problem, as Hanger did, with the overall narrative of lax regulation, but he did fault the first and second installments of the series for the same problem (the latter focused on the recycling of wastewater, an alternative discharge, though one the Times called insufficient). While lauding the articles for being “well modulated in tone,” not once flatly declaring “that people are drinking water that is demonstrably poisonous or carcinogenic,” Petit wanted to see Urbina take a harder look at the repeated assertion by government and industry that wastewater discharges are adequately diluted by fresh water in rivers and streams.
Indeed, in the first article of the series, Urbina provided links to a study from Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection, suggesting the dilution is sufficient, and one for the American Petroleum Institute, suggesting it isn’t—but he doesn’t attempt to resolve the two, leaving the reader with little more than a he-said-she-said debate. Petit argued that with data about river flow rates readily available, Urbina should have crunched the numbers and been more conclusive.
There is also an odd contradiction between the AP’s January article about wastewater and the first article in the Times series. The former reported that “treatment plant operators” say their facilities can remove most toxic pollutants without much trouble, including radioactive elements, but that removing dissolved solids (salts, etc.) is more difficult. In the Times, however, “treatment plant operators” say their facilities aren’t equipped to remove radioactive material (the story didn’t mention dissolved solids). Thus, there seems to be some need for clarification of what these plants can and cannot effectively treat. Regardless, it’s nice to see major outlets like the Times, the AP, and ProPublica all digging into the drilling story with such gusto.