EPA:

Drilling tip line yielded scores of allegations, but no criminal cases

In February 2011, a resident of a western Pennsylvania town noticed that her water was black and "had a very strong metallic odor."

That same month, in Texas, several people in one neighborhood smelled rotten eggs and experienced symptoms that ranged from nausea to face paralysis. And in West Virginia, one resident accused an oil and gas company of kidnapping a neighbor to obtain permission for drilling rights.

Ranging from credible to dubious, from coherent to irrational, the hundreds of tips that U.S. EPA received through its "Eyes on Drilling" tip line paint an eclectic picture of the fears that plague residents who live near oil and natural gas developments. For the last three years, people called and emailed the agency at all times of the day and night to report illegal dumping, suspicious smells and cloudy water.

EPA's Region 3 office in Philadelphia launched the tip line at the start of 2010 in the hope that it would lead to useful information about hydraulic fracturing, a controversial process for extracting gas that is becoming increasingly popular. Though EPA has no direct jurisdiction over the permitting for so-called fracking -- in which chemical-laced water is used to break apart rock formations -- the agency does enforce regulations to protect air and water resources.

EPA got flooded with calls the day it launched the tip line, according to logs obtained by Greenwire through a Freedom of Information Act request. Many came from Pennsylvania, where oil companies are using fracking to tap previously inaccessible oil and gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale formation.

One caller, for example, reported "numerous loud explosion type noises rattling area homes" and hypothesized that an oil company was performing seismic testing, a technique in which explosives are detonated underground to find natural gas reserves. The next day, the person -- who is kept anonymous in EPA's log -- called again to say the dishes were shaking in the cabinet.

In all, EPA received more than 500 tips through the toll-free tip line, with a related email address attracting hundreds more. None resulted in federal criminal cases.

But EPA's criminal investigators followed up on scores of allegations, visiting local residents to get more information or sometimes just to answer questions and allay fears, said David McLeod, EPA special agent in charge in Region 3.

McLeod, who heads EPA's Criminal Investigation Division (CID) for the mid-Atlantic states, admitted in a recent interview that the tip line "wasn't as fruitful as we hoped and desired" in gaining information about criminal activity.

But he said it became a useful public outreach tool in an area where residents are apprehensive about a growing fracking industry. It also led to EPA joining local and federal agencies to create the Marcellus Shale Task Force, which put on a conference last year to encourage information-sharing among the different entities that oversee fracking.

"For public outreach, it was great. In helping create local synergy with the other agencies, that was great," McLeod said. "Was it effective in opening cases? No."

EPA officials retired the Eyes on Drilling tip line on Oct. 1, referring callers to EPA's Report a Violation system. Unlike the tip line -- which relied on employees to fill in, sometimes by hand, one-page logs -- the online form requires tipsters to fill in fields on the nature of a violation and the suspected violators.

The new system, McLeod said, will "better ensure tracking, coordination and accountability in resolving tips and complaints." He emphasized that those who don't have Internet access can still call the Region 3 office on its customer service hotline (800-438-2474).

Orange hair and a dead horse

But while it was active, the one-stop-shop tip line opened a window into what has been on the minds of Americans who find themselves suddenly next door to oil and gas developments.

A large chunk of the complaints related to water quality, with callers complaining that their tap water was everything from cloudy to yellow to black. Many demanded tests for contaminants; some reported that oil companies were providing them with bottled water or that they had taken on the expense themselves. A common complaint was that their water might contain methane, amid concerns that fracking may cause the gas to seep into water wells.

Callers also reported a variety of ailments they attributed to nearby drilling. A Pennsylvania resident said a girl in the area had hair that was turning orange "because of high iron levels in her water." Another reported a "thick odor" of burning tires entering her home, causing her to "get ill with headache, nausea, dizziness and stinging eyes."

Animals were also reported sick or dying, such as a horse that died with arsenic in its blood after a drilling company began providing local residents with drinking water.

The logs released to Greenwire didn't include details on how EPA followed up on individual tips. Some logs indicated a follow-up with CID; others had such information redacted. The majority included only a date in a field titled "Responded by Duty Agent."

But McLeod said CID agents personally followed up on all complaints that even hinted at the criminal, such as a caller witnessing a truck discharging waste into a local stream. Other tips that were more civil in nature -- odd-tasting tap water, for example, or sick animals -- would be referred to officials who could help individuals pursue lawsuits.

That still left criminal investigators with many tips to pursue. For example, dozens involved firsthand observations of trucks from oil and gas companies dumping waste either into waterways or on the ground. And many tipsters were not afraid to confront potential violators.

According to EPA's logs, one caller to the tip line said he approached a truck driver who argued that the stream would "dilute" the waste. Another emailed a video of someone opening the valve of a truck "along the roadside to begin dumping on the ground." Still another followed three tractor trailers down "an unnamed road in the area of Possum Creek in Fayette County PA."

The tipster "suspects the trailers were either going to dump an unknown substance into the creek or pump fresh water out of the creek at a point they may not be permitted to do so from," an EPA employee wrote in the log summarizing the tip. "[Redacted] began to follow the trucks and when they observed [redacted] they stopped, turned around and proceeded in another direction."

McLeod said some of the allegations received through the tip line involved potential violations of Section 404 of the Clean Water Act, which requires permits for the discharge of dredged or fill materials into wetlands and waterways. But the threshold for a criminal case is higher than that for a civil case, he said, and none of the allegations led to clear evidence of illegal dumping.

Anonymous leads were especially hard to check out, he said. For example, someone might leave a message saying a red truck was illegally dumping waste, but without a number to follow up, investigators were unable to ask about the make and model, the location, the company or other clues.

"Unfortunately, a lot of the time we would get a lead and it would be anonymous, and honestly, when anonymous leads come in they're hard to substantiate," McLeod said. "With the resources that we have, it's hard to run out and attack every windmill."

And some complaints were just that -- complaints.

Callers sometimes used the tip line to vent, calling EPA "lazy" or asking for help in getting a response from local agencies. In April 2010, less than three months after the tip line opened, EPA got a call that sounded more like a warning, from someone claiming to be the wife of Jesus Christ.

"Caller is the wife of Jesus Christ and Billy Idol (the rock singer) is in fact Jesus Christ," an EPA employee wrote in the log. "Caller is the co-owner of the earth and she is upset over the Marcellus Shale drilling and the Chesapeake Bay pollution."

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