Wednesday, October 21, 2015

PA Revives Its Office of Environmental Justice

Andrea Sears, Public News Service

About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
About 489 gas wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities. Credit: U.S. Geological Survey/Wikimedia Commons
PITTSBURGH - The state Office of Environmental Justice finally is getting a new director, and fracking for natural gas will be on the agenda.

The office reviews the environmental impact of projects set for poor and minority communities, but it's been without a director for three months. Now, the Department of Environmental Protection says gas-drilling permit applications once again will trigger extra notification and community involvement in areas with few of the resources needed to say no.

That's good news to Larry Schweiger, president of the environmental group PennFuture.

"So now, putting that on the trigger list gives us an opportunity to know what's going on in advance," he said, "and hopefully those who are involved in agency decisions can step up and challenge bad choices."

Close to 500 wells have been drilled in environmental-justice communities - areas where 20 percent or more live in poverty, or 30 percent are people of color.

Schweiger pointed to studies showing that fracking can affect unborn children in communities close to drilling sites, and added that that's just the tip of the iceberg.

"We have the evidence now that fracking is a threat to residents," he said, "and it needs to be regulated to prevent those kinds of harm."

Just how effective the office will be remains a question. Under state law, environmental-justice concerns cannot be used as grounds to deny a gas drilling permit.

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