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Editorial: Environmental justice requires more than reviews

By The Pitt News Editorial Board

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Many environmentalists thought when Tom Corbett left the Pennsylvania governor’s mansion in January, his silver shield around oil and gas companies left with him.

Yet, oil and gas companies are just as present as they used to be — at least in the form of fracking. As of now, fracking, the process used to extract natural gas from shale rock, is heavily cemented in our state. With 9,444 active shale gas wells, it’s not exactly realistic for anyone to believe fracking will cease anytime soon.

Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean we should just put up with fracking’s negative effects. Even if it helps to create jobs and to decrease our dependence on foreign oil — which it certainly does — the benefits do not outweigh the potential dangers.

We can reach a happy medium if we find a way to ensure that fracking is done responsibly, with all Pennsylvanians’ best interests in mind — not just all the shareholders or the residents who can afford to push it out of their communities.

The government needs to step in to make sure everyone has an equal stake. Last week, Harrisburg, Pennsylvania granted a mandate for review to the Office of Environmental Justice, a branch of Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection. The mandate will allow the office to review shale gas facilities that potentially pose a threat to the health of residents living in poor and minority communities.

According to the DEP’s website, environmental justice concerns areas where “20 percent or more individuals live in poverty, and/or 30 percent or more of the population is a minority.”

The goal of the review is to ensure that the implications of fracking do not disproportionately affect these communities.

Seeing that, these effects can pose a direct threat to public health via the water supply.

According to a report from Earthworks, a nonprofit environmental organization, during the process of fracking, companies use approximately 40,000 gallons of fluid mixed with water, sand and chemicals to drill into the ground. The “fracking fluid” can contain up to 600 different kinds of chemicals, including methanol, mercury and lead. As the fluid travels deeper into the earth, these chemicals can leak into nearby groundwater.

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Consequently, drinking water wells near fracking sites have, on average, methane concentrations that are 17 times higher than areas without fracking, according to the same Earthworks report. Nearby towns and cities then use the contaminated drinking water — leading to potential sensory, respiratory and neurological damages for residents.

The towns and cities with contaminated water are, more often than not, located in environmental justice areas. According to the DEP’s 2014 state environmental justice map, 851 communities and municipalities are in these areas — along with almost 500 fracking wells.

These communities within environmental justice areas tend to lack the political resources to hold frackers accountable. In that, low-income residents don’t have the time or money to collectively organize to monitor the environmental impacts of fracking.

Meanwhile, residents in more wealthy areas can organize and file suits against any unwanted fracking operations — as Exxon’s own CEO Rex Tillerson’s community in Texas did in 2014.

The expanded review operations on environmental justice risks will help to shed light on the extent of fracking effects in Pennsylvania — but as of now, that’s pretty much all the Office of Environmental Justice can do.

“The question the department really needs to answer is what difference does a review make if drilling companies aren’t required to make changes to reduce risks in those communities?” George Jugovic, Jr., chief counsel at PennFuture, a statewide environmental organization, told the Post-Gazette.

When conducting these reviews, the Office of Environmental Justice will not tell violating fracking sites to leave or even issue them a fine — it’s merely informational. The reviews “have no real teeth,” as Jugovic said.

While information is important, if Pennsylvania wants to take environmental justice seriously, it needs to add limitations to the frequency of fracking in these areas. It can do this by making permits more strict, or even by limiting the number of sites a company can have in environmental justice areas in general.

Overall, the benefits of fracking shouldn’t come at the expense of the health of the disadvantaged — the DEP needs “teeth.”

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Editorial: Environmental justice requires more than reviews