DEP chief defends his agency on gas drillers

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The McKeesport Sewage Treatment Plant is one of nine plants on the Monongahela River that has treated wastewater from Marcellus Shale drilling operations.

Michael Krancer has been largely silent since Gov. Corbett nominated him to head the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. But the Senate confirmed his appointment Tuesday, and now the muzzle is off.

"Out of respect for the process, I've waited to talk more freely to the press," the Bryn Mawr lawyer said.

Krancer, 53, former chief judge of the state's Environmental Hearing Board, has heard the criticism that the Corbett administration is in the pocket of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry.

"The rumor that DEP is not competent, not doing a good job, is so false I'd love to get on the pulpit and dispel it," Krancer said in an interview Friday.

Krancer pointed to his announcement April 19 calling on the gas industry to stop sending toxic wastewater to 15 treatment plants unequipped to purify it. The Rendell administration had allowed the practice.

Activists ridiculed Krancer's move because it is voluntary. But Krancer says he is sure that shale drillers will halt discharges by his May 19 deadline or face public shame.

He said that if he had issued a formal order to halt the practice, treatment-plant operators could have challenged the directive in court. A judicial review could have taken years to complete, he said.

"My thought was it would be quicker, and would get us to the result we wanted to get to immediately, without litigation, without the time that that takes, the fight that that takes, and an uncertain result," he said. "And it worked."

The day after he announced his call, the Marcellus Shale Coalition, the industry trade group, committed in writing to comply by ramping up efforts to recycle the wastewater.

"It is not a 'pretty, please' request," Krancer said. "It is a call to do what is right. And most, in this case, all responsible companies will rise to that call.

"I've heard the criticisms that it should have been an order," he said. "But at the end of the day, I stand on the fact that it did work. And we will verify that it's actually being done in the field."

Krancer's approach has not won admiration among anti-drilling activists, who regard the Corbett administration with deep suspicion. Corbett received $800,000 in campaign contributions from drilling interests last year and is opposed to an extraction tax on gas.

Citizens for Pennsylvania's Future last week filed formal requests under the state's Right to Know law seeking to learn "exactly how and by whom" DEP is enforcing environmental laws.

"Gov. Corbett promised to be 'the cop on the beat' in protecting Pennsylvania's environment from damage by the drillers," said Jan Jarrett, PennFuture's president. "But right now, it's more like the Keystone Kops with questions about who is in charge."

PennFuture in particular is focused on a March directive requiring field inspectors to clear citations with DEP executive staff in Harrisburg. Anti-drilling activists have portrayed the instructions as a means to go easy on drillers.

Krancer said the missive was misunderstood. Major enforcement actions were always reviewed by Harrisburg under previous administrations, he said.

"There is no preapproval by me, by central office," he said. "That is simply a wrong story. I do believe it's being used by some folks for some purposes. It's just false."

Krancer said his aim was to improve the department's process for issuing formal notices of violation, known in regulatory parlance as NOVs. Since DEP doubled its oil and gas inspection force over the last two years in response to the shale boom, the industry has complained about inconsistent enforcement.

"I want strong enforcement and consistency and defensible enforcement," he said.

Krancer said that during a decade of ruling on appeals of DEP enforcement actions, he often saw the government's cases collapse under pressure from corporate lawyers.

"On many occasions I saw what appeared to be a decent case melt away because the inspector couldn't really defend what he or she did," he said. "They need to be able to stand up and face down a professional litigator when they get into court."

Krancer said he was instructing inspectors to compile the inspection reports and violation notices more clearly, concisely, and logically. "I've been telling my inspectors, 'Write your tickets better,' " he said.

David Masur, director of PennEnvironment, said he was not buying Krancer's explanation.

"They will always have a hard time staying at an arm's length from this industry when they have a track record that looks so cozy," he said.

Krancer said he regretted that the e-mailed instructions to the field staff were leaked to the news media. "It came out in an awkward way, and not a complete way," he said.

Krancer said he had a tough record as a judge. He once criticized a $250,000 penalty against a construction company because he suspected the company might have profited much more from its bad behavior, but DEP had failed to provide any information on economic benefits.

"If a cheater is allowed to get a competitive advantage that the companies that do it right aren't getting, that's like steroids in baseball," he said. "You can't allow that in a market economy."

He said the agency rarely responded to his requests to show the economic benefits derived by violators. "The DEP never listened to me," he said. "Now I'm hoping they will."

Krancer, great-nephew of the late Philadelphia publisher and philanthropist Walter Annenberg, said he has experienced the regulatory process from many perspectives - as a judge and as a private lawyer and also on the staff of Exelon Corp. He also ran for the state Supreme Court in 2007 as a Republican.

"My job as a lawyer and as a judge is to be controlled by facts and by reason and to be very deliberative," he said. "I want to tune out all that background noise.

He said he now wanted to be known as an enforcer.

"My job is to focus on public safety," he said. "That's what Gov. Corbett told me."


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947 or amaykuth@phillynews.com.