gas pipeline

A file photo of a Marcellus Shale pipeline being laid through a forest in Tioga County.

THE ISSUE

A chemical commonly used in hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, appears to have traveled thousands of feet into the drinking water of three homes in Bradford County, according to a study by three hydrogeologists, including two at Penn State, that was published Monday. The study marks “the first documented and published demonstration of toxic compounds escaping from uncased boreholes in shale gas wells and moving long distances” into drinking water, according to Susan Brantley, a Penn State professor of geosciences and one of the study’s authors.

While steps taken since seem to have addressed the problems that led to the contamination of the wells in Bradford County, the industry and state regulators should make sure they follow up to ensure public safety.

Natural gas is an important Pennsylvania resource. Shale gas production now accounts for almost 50 percent of America’s gas production.

But no industry is worth trading for the safety of our drinking water. The  Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection needs to make the protection of our water a top priority.

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes, a majority of U.S. watersheds suffer water-quality problems, including toxic chemicals. And beyond the public health threat of contaminated drinking water, these problems, EPA says, “have led to habitat loss, invasive species incursion (and) fish kills.”

The natural gas industry’s concern for safety and its regulation here in Pennsylvania appear to be moving in a positive direction.

The state DEP strengthened its regulations and fined the company involved, Chesapeake Energy, $1 million in May 2011 for allowing natural gas to enter the wells. And Chesapeake, while admitting no fault, settled a lawsuit by the three homeowners for $1.6 million.

“Industry knows how to construct wells properly, but the fact is that they don’t always do so,” Scott Anderson, a senior policy analyst with the environmental advocacy group Environmental Defense Fund, told The New York Times. “My hope would be that papers like this will encourage industry and its regulators to do a better job of doing what they already know they are supposed to do.”

The DEP should make Anderson’s hope its duty. And it should take the hint from what happened in Bradford County — after-the-fact lawsuits, stronger regulation and fines — to prevent a repeat in this or any other industry by coming up with strong safeguards before the next new industry gets rolling (or drilling).

While Susan Brantley and Penn State co-author David Yoxtheimer told The Associated Press that the state’s regulations since might have prevented the contamination, the DEP should do further tests to make sure.

For the sake of our precious water supplies and watersheds, the analysis published Monday needs to be followed up.

And the lesson from what appears to have happened in Bradford County should not be lost on state regulators: Develop regulations to protect public health before allowing a new industry to begin operations in Pennsylvania.