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A long overdue grand jury exposes the truth about fracking, but will anything come of it?

Many of those living in close proximity to a well pad began to become chronically, and inexplicably, sick. Pets died; farm animals that lived outside started miscarrying, or giving birth to deformed offspring. But the worst was the children, who were most susceptible to the effects. Families went to their doctors for answers, but the doctors didn’t know what to do. The unconventional oil and gas companies would not even identify the chemicals they were using, so that they could be studied; the companies said the compounds were “trade secrets” and “proprietary information.”

Pennsylvania grand jury report on fracking, June 2020.

It got lost in the shuffle of coronavirus and food lines and protesters on the Vine Street Expressway and whatnot, but in late June a state grand jury, steered by Attorney General Josh Shapiro, issued a damning 235-page report that in a world with any logic would have ended unconventional natural-gas drilling, or fracking, as we know it in Pennsylvania.

These citizen grand jurors did something that state leaders have almost never done since the hypesters and hucksters of Big Oil and Gas were welcomed into Pennsylvania with open arms amid the 2000s’ desperate desire for economic development at any cost.

They listened to the people.

For some 287 hours, the panel heard from folks directly affected by more than 12,500 fracking wells drilled in Pennsylvania during the 21st century. They listened to parents whose little girls woke up in the middle of the night with blood pouring down their noses, whose tap water smelled like sulfur and who found black sludge in the toilet, or who described getting a “frack rash” that felt like alligator skin.

The grand jury report was an indictment with a small “i” of a dirty industry’s disregard for the public (and to be fair, one major company firm pleaded no contest and paid a small $150,000 pollution fine, and a second has been charged) but also of regulators from the state Departments of Environmental Protection and Health who too often were too blasè about citizen complaints and too cozy with the natural-gas industry, sometimes leaving government for lucrative jobs there.

And yet there was also something maddening about this whole enterprise. It all smacked of too little, too late — where was this quest for justice a decade ago, when the worst violations were taking place? The report was hard on the GOP administration of ex-Gov. Tom Corbett and yet way too kind to Gov. Wolf, Shapiro’s fellow Democrat whom he hopes to follow into the Governor’s Mansion in 2022. And its recommendations for reforms are OK but not earth-shaking, and yet anyone who’s even driven through Harrisburg knows the GOP-led legislature will fight them to the death. It was great political theater for the ambitious Shapiro, who posed for the cameras with a jar of brown tap water, but what is going to change?

“It was clearly a missed opportunity,” Joseph Minott, executive director of the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, told me, “because everything that was said by the members of the grand jury — which stated upfront that they weren’t anti-gas — are very much the things that we experienced in those communities,” going back more than a decade, Minott said that the arrogance of the fracking industry, the penchant for secrecy, the indifference of regulators — it was all hiding in plain sight

Think about this: The Wolf administration stood up to opposition and has won high marks for shutting down the state for weeks to curb the spread of coronavirus, to stop Pennsylvanians from getting sick and maybe dying. But children getting sick and cows dying — with reports of childhood cancer clusters and studies projecting multiple deaths from air pollution — gets something closer to a shrug. New York to the north and Maryland to the south have banned unconventional drilling, but the Pennsylvania grand jury went out of its way to declare that “we are not ‘anti-fracking.‘”

I am, and so are a growing number of Pennsylvanians. In 2020, the grand jurors and state leaders like Shapiro and Wolf are where we should have been in 2010; meanwhile, in the reality-based world, clean renewable energy is now a cheaper option than fossil fuels, including fracked natural gas, and firms like one-time industry leader Chesapeake Energy — which recently filed for bankruptcy protection — are paying the price for their short-sightedness and greed. Some day in the near future, moms with sludge in their toilet and blood smearing their daughters’ faces will get the relief they deserve. It just won’t come from our state’s feckless politicians.