Pennsylvania officials said this week that oil and gas inspectors do not need approval from the state's top environmental boss to issue violations to companies drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale. In March, internal emails from the Department of Environmental Protection were leaked to ProPublica and other news organizations showing a directive that appeared to order just that. The emails told field staff to forward their work to superiors
—and eventually to the head of the department—and await approval before issuing any violations.
It remains unclear whether that order has been repealed or whether it ever was put into place. In April, the DEP told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette that the order was a temporary "procedural change." On Tuesday, Gov. Tom Corbett and DEP Secretary Michael Krancer simply said such approval had not been required.
"I'm here to tell you inspectors were never under an order or directive or anything else to clear through Mike Krancer or anybody else in central office to write notices of violation," Krancer told a group of state legislators on Tuesday. "That story was blown way out of proportion."
A report by the Post-Gazette said the department has rescinded the order.
"The notice of violation process is just as it was," DEP spokeswoman Katy Gresh told the Post-Gazette. "The inspectors don't need pre-approval and that has been communicated to them."
In his comments before lawmakers, Krancer acknowledged that story but did not directly address whether anything had been rescinded.
"It doesn't matter to me," whether the report that the order was repealed is true, he said, "as long as you get to the same result. And the result is that inspectors aren't having to clear any [violations] through either me or others in central office."
The DEP has not responded to a request for comment from ProPublica.
Jan Jarrett, president of the environmental group PennFuture, said the episode had been a major public relations blunder for the department and that she's happy the issue has been settled.
"They rescinded it, so credit where credit's due," she said.
When we first reported the story in March, Gresh did not deny that the order would require inspectors to seek approval before issuing violations. The original email, sent by the department's executive deputy director, John Hines, said that all violations or actions "must get the approval" of Hines and eventually Krancer, who was appointed to head the DEP in January. "Any waver from this directive will not be acceptable," he wrote.
Gresh told us then that the directive was meant to correct inconsistencies across the department and that it would not interfere with enforcement.
"There are times that [violations] have been issued when there is a pop can lying on a site," she said in March. "Yet maybe other things are being missed, things that are truly detrimental to the environment that we want to take action on."
Former DEP Secretary David Hess told us in March that such a directive was not surprising, given that a new administration was in charge. He said it's understandable for a new department head to want to know what is happening across the agency, which has field offices across the state that operate somewhat independently.
"Anybody with a business that has six different offices, has new people in those offices, you really want to do things consistently," he said.
In his remarks to state lawmakers this week, Krancer said he wants to make sure that inspectors across the agency are issuing violations that are consistent with the law. Krancer, who previously sat as a judge on the state's Environmental Hearing Board, said he'd seen corporate lawyers dress down inspectors for inconsistent actions and that he wants to make sure his staff is prepared.
"Write your [violations] so they're clear, so they're concise and so that you, Mr. Inspector, can come to court and defend them and defend what you did," he said. "Because that's what you're going to have to do in this day and age."