Read Josh Shapiro’s Editorial on Protecting Pennsylvania’s Drinking Water

The following ran as an editorial published by the Intelligencer on Friday, March 25, 2016

By Josh Shapiro

In a courtroom in Scranton earlier this month, a federal jury found one of the largest natural gas producers in Pennsylvania responsible for contaminating the well water of two local families and awarded them $4.25 million in damages.

The families’ legal odyssey took them six years, as they sought justice for what happened to their drinking water, which turned cloudy, foamy and discolored and made family members sick, according to the evidence at trial. Still, the verdict in the families’ favor stunned observers, who noted the rarity of verdicts against the gas industry. “They were Goliaths in there, and I was just a little pea stone,” Scott Ely, one of the successful plaintiffs, told reporters.

As a Democratic candidate for state attorney general, I noted that verdict in Dimock, Pennsylvania, and I wondered: Why isn’t state government doing more to fight for those families? Why isn’t our government standing up to the companies that pollute our environment and harm public health and holding them accountable?

If I’m elected attorney general, I will.

Under the Pennsylvania Constitution, every Pennsylvanian has a right to “clean air” and “pure water.” But frackers and other polluters threaten this constitutional right for some in our commonwealth, like the families in Dimock. In its ruling striking down portions of Act 13 in 2013, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court strengthened the legal power of our state constitution’s Environmental Rights Amendment.

As attorney general, I will look for opportunities to bring impact litigation against frackers based on Pennsylvania’s constitutional right to clean air and pure water when there is clear evidence that they have undermined this right.

Getting tough on frackers that violate our environmental laws requires prioritizing these cases within the Office of Attorney General. Here’s how I’ll do that.

I will elevate and empower the Attorney General’s Environmental Crimes Unit. I will devote resources to strengthen this unit’s ability to pursue and prosecute frackers and polluters who violate our environmental health and safety laws. Additionally, I will direct the office’s Public Protection Division to focus on environmental issues that impact consumers. When there is cause, the Attorney General’s Public Protection Division will use civil investigative demands and civil subpoenas to investigate companies of concern to protect consumers.

Another key to holding frackers accountable is strengthening cooperation between the Office of Attorney General and the departments of Environmental Protection and Health. Most environmental crimes cases brought by the Office of Attorney General are referred by these agencies or district attorneys. They are the front-line investigators, with a wealth of data and evidence, so improving coordination and cooperation with them is critical. I will also launch a special task force of district attorneys from the counties most affected by fracking to share information, determine patterns of abuse and coordinate enforcement strategies.

Finally, we need tough penalties to hold frackers that violate our laws accountable. The fracking industry has committed more than 5,200 known violations over the last 15 years and is responsible for 271 documented instances of water contamination in Pennsylvania. Sadly, the fines and penalties are just a cost of doing business to them, it seems. Polluting should never pay. As attorney general, I will pursue criminal cases against frackers as well as settlements that are more than a slap on the wrist. I’ll also use the bully pulpit to advocate for tougher penalties for companies that repeatedly violate laws and regulations.

I’m particularly concerned about the impact frackers have on our most vulnerable populations. There are 166 schools, 165 child-care providers, 21 nursing-care providers and six hospitals within a one-mile radius of permitted fracking well sites. Because young children, the elderly and those with weakened immune systems are most vulnerable to the dangerous effects of fracking, violations that occur close to these populations should warrant tougher penalties. As attorney general, I will advocate for tougher penalties for violations of our environmental and safety laws close to vulnerable populations.

Other state attorneys general already prudently and energetically enforce state laws to prosecute polluters and protect citizens’ rights to a clean environment. In Pennsylvania, we need an attorney general with the will to enforce state law, prosecute frackers and other polluters and ensure clean air and water for every Pennsylvania citizen. Clean air and pure water is our constitutional right, and I’ll fight to protect that right for you.