Monday, February 28, 2011

UPDATED "Local" equals "State" in NYT Story, Part 4 of NYT.

[NOTE TO READERS: Please read first the February 27th post entitled: "Statement Regarding Sunday NYT February 27th Drilling Article." I am the former Secretary of the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.  This post is one of a seven part posting series that examines the reporting and the reporter's narrative of lax regulation and oversight of drilling in Pennsylvania.]

Now let's look at how the reporter wrote about the high Total Dissolved Solids (TDS) recorded on the Monongahela River during October to December 2008 that exceeded the secondary drinking water standard of the Safe Drinking Water Act.  Secondary drinking water standards are for pollutants that impact the color, odor or taste of water but are not considered a health threat. They are important.

Throughout the February 27th main article, the reporter uses the words "regulators," "state regulators," "federal regulators" and "E.P.A" and normally to make clear who was not doing its job.  But there is a single exception. 

To quote the piece at page 2:  "And recent incidents underscore the dangers.  In late 2008, drilling and coal-mine waste released during a drought so overwhelmed the Monongahela that local officials advised people in the Pittsburgh area to drink bottled water."

These two sentences about a major event have multiple problems if accuracy and fairness is the goal but work perfectly for a narrative of lax Pennsylvania state regulators and regulation.

First, no where in the piece does it mention that the water coming into Pennsylvania from West Virginia was already at the maximum secondary safe drinking water standard.  It is also true that the concentration increased further as the water proceeded down the Monongahela into Pennsylvania.

I further challenged the reporter and specifically said that two things about this description.  I said that you did not report that the DEP issued emergency orders in October, 2008 to municipal sewage treatment systems on the Monongahela and elsewhere that we learned were taking drilling waste without DEP permission and discharging it without treatment to cut their volumes immediately by 95%.  This was substantial and immediate regulatory action.  It showed a major response from state regulators and contradicts the narrative of lax oversight. 

In addition DEP contacted mining companies and won their agreement to reduce mine discharges in another effort to reduce the TDS levels.

We also took other actions that are part of the public record, including contacting state regulators in West Virginia about the high TDS levels as the Monongahela flowed into Pennsylvania, as well as the Army Corps of Engineers to see if it could increase the release of water from some facilities it controlled to raise the volumes of water on the Monongahela .

Second, I told the reporter that it was not "local officials" who issued a drinking water advisory to the public when data indicated that TDS levels were above the secondary standard for TDS.  The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection did or "state regulators" as used every where else in the article.

PA DEP/state regulators did its job of alerting immediately the public to the fact that the water was above the secondary drinking water standard.  DEP/state regulators also took aggressive action.

The reporter in an email responded: "In that passage we use the term local officials to contrast with federal officials.  In other words we are referring to meaning the PA DEP."

In my vocabulary, there are federal, state, and local officials and federal, state, and local governments.  I suspect many readers read the section and concluded what I did: local officials and not state regulators warned the public.

The section of this article omits strong oversight actions by DEP and uses word choices that would cause many readers to think that "local" meaning local government officials warned the public. 

The DEP/state regulatory advisory was also written after consultation with the Pennsylvania Department of Health.  Since the drinking water standard that was being exceeded was a odor, taste, and color standard and not a health based standard, the advisory did not directly tell people to drink bottled water.  It in fact explained the standard and the odor, taste, color issues, and then said a consumer may want to use bottled water if they have concerns.  The two sentences above do not accurately convey this point and difference.

To be clear, though the TDS standard is a secondary standard under the Safe Drinking Water Act, the PA DEP treated the exceedance of TDS on the Monongahela as a serious event and took major regulatory and oversight action then.

 I had been Secretary for about a month when this event took place, and it triggered my concern about the need to change Pennsylvania's rules concerning discharges of TDS loaded waste into our streams.  New rules restricting the discharge of such waste were proposed in 2009 and final rules became law in August 2010.

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