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In Fracking Fight, a Worry About How Best to Measure Health Threats

In Pennsylvania, opponents of gas drilling say regulators are slow and unprepared in responding to air quality complaints.

There are more than 6,000 active gas wells in Pennsylvania. And every week, those drilling sites generate scores of complaints from the state's residents, including many about terrible odors and contaminated water.

How the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection handles those complaints has worsened the already raw and angry divide between fearful residents and the state regulators charged with overseeing the burgeoning gas drilling industry.

For instance, the agency's own manual for dealing with complaints is explicit about what to do if someone reports concerns about a noxious odor, but is not at that very moment experiencing the smell: "DO NOT REGISTER THE COMPLAINT."

When a resident does report a real-time alarm about the air quality in or around their home, the agency typically has two weeks to conduct an investigation. If no odor is detected when investigators arrive on the scene, the case is closed.

"The time that it takes them to respond is something people are concerned about," said Matt Walker, a community outreach director for the Clean Air Council in Pennsylvania, an environmental advocacy organization. Waiting a few days to two weeks to respond to odor complaints, he said, is "way too long."

George Jugovic, who served as a regional director for the DEP until 2012, agrees. Jugovic said the department is only set up to respond quickly to potential emergencies.

"It's a problem," said Jugovic, who since leaving the department has served as counsel to a local environmental group.

Rebecca Roter said she experienced the problem first hand last year. On a cool April evening in 2013, Roter said she was cooking dinner in her Susquehanna County home when a "nauseating" smell overwhelmed her. Roter said she walked out to her front porch, pulled her gray hoodie over her nose and mouth and quickly drove her car to the site of a nearby gas well being fracked.

Roter said she saw plumes of dust rising into the air. That evening, Roter said she wrote to the DEP, recounting the events of the day and requesting that they send out a field agent to follow up. Four days later, the agency sent out an investigator.

The DEP later notified Roter in writing that the investigator had found "nothing out of line" and that it had concluded that "the operation appeared to be conducted as per standard procedure."

Roter said she is convinced the investigator simply didn't detect any smell when he responded 96 hours after her report. The odor has recurred repeatedly in the months since, she said, and she has no idea how alarmed to be.

The concerns of residents like Roter are not likely to be eased by a study published today in Reviews on Environmental Health, a peer reviewed journal. The study, researchers say, confirms what they have long suspected about natural gas operations 2014 that emission levels from these sites spike drastically over short periods of time, making it hard to assess the true threat to people's health.

Researchers at the Southwest Pennsylvania Environmental Health Project collected real-time readings of particulate matter 2014 soot, dust and chemicals 2014 in 14 homes in Washington County, a heavily drilled part of the state. They found repeated episodes during which measures of contaminated dust rose sharply, to dangerous levels in the course of a day.

David Brown, the lead researcher on the study, said that a person in such circumstances could get what amounted to a full day's exposure in half an hour.

The American Petroleum Institute did not respond to repeated requests for comment. The Pennsylvania Independent Oil and Gas Association declined to comment on the Environmental Health Project's study but said that the oil and gas industry is "heavily regulated" and that the association's member companies "strive to comply with numerous federal and state air quality related rules, regulations, and reporting requirements."

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