Bill takes aim at DEP’s cameras

State Sen. Scott Hutchinson has introduced two bills to stop the state Department of Environmental Protection from using remote surveillance equipment and unmarked vehicles to enforce laws at oil and gas sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Hutchinson said the bills are “very targeted at the conventional oil and gas industry.”

“That’s my target, that’s who brought the issue to me, and I’m working with them on this,” he said.

Gary Clark, community relations coordinator for the DEP, said the department is reviewing the legislation.

“DEP Bureau of Investigation is confidential and protects the integrity of the work investigating potential environmental regulations and statutes,” he said.

Senate Bill 1174 would prohibit the DEP “from using remote video and photo surveillance equipment to monitor for compliance with environmental statutes.”

“This legislation results from an alarming case of the agency using an unmarked Bushnell 8MP Night Vision Trophy Camera to monitor activities at a DEP permitted worksite. It is important that the department retains its ability to conduct reasonable inspections to ensure environmental compliance; however, citizens should not be subject to video or photo surveillance by DEP, especially without their knowledge,” Hutchinson said in the memorandum of the bill.

The DEP’s use of “cameras, drones, any of those kind of technological spying” goes too far, he said.

The monitoring was done at a conventional site, before the current DEP secretary took office, and the a court case related to the incident has since been withdrawn, he said.

“In this age of government spying with technology, I think you can go overboard with it. I’m concerned about it, lots of folks are concerned about it… I don’t think that it’s appropriate that they do that,” he said.

Senate Bill 1119 would require vehicles used by the DEP for oil and gas inspections to marked with sign or sticker that clearly identifies the vehicle.

“Many well sites are located in remote areas of the commonwealth and some companies even employ security staff to monitor their operations and equipment. Conspicuously marked department vehicles will allow industry employees to easily distinguish between DEP inspectors and unlawful trespassers,” he said in the bills memorandum.

DEP inspectors have a right to visit and inspect drilling sites, he said, however, “historically they came in vehicles that were marked. My understanding is that’s not always the case anymore.”

Hutchinson described the relationship between the DEP and conventional oil and gas drillers as “not very good.”

“The overall theme is trying to make sure the focus of DEP is not just on arresting people and collecting fines. Rather, I believe their focus should be more upon helping individuals and businesses to keep the enforcement clean. Both of these bills are helping to forward that operating style,” he said.

Pennsylvania Independent Petroleum Producers Association President Gary Hovis said unmarked DEP vehicles began showing up at oil and gas sites earlier this year.

“A lot of the issues can be addressed and discussed in the open…they don’t need to be sneaky about it,” he said.

Hovis said he believes the trail camera Hutchinson referenced in the bills memorandum, had been put in place by DEP to monitor traffic in and out of an operator’s property.

“I’m not sure what they intended to learn,” Hovis said. “I think it’s a little extreme. I think the producers in our field are straight forward enough,. If there’s a question that DEP has, they can come and talk over the situation.”