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Marcellus Shale Test Well Troubles in Context: Citizens speak out against “exploratory” wells in Upper Delaware

May 12, 2010

originally published in University City Review on May 12, 2010 page 3

With 29 dead in the Massey coal disaster and 11 dead in the Gulf of Mexico after the BP well blowout, the nation watches while catastrophe continues.  The families of the dead workers grieve privately, while the media rarely mentions the lives lost in coverage of the uncontrollable leak.

Over 3.5 million gallons of oil has already spilled from the Gulf floor about a mile under the surface;  islands, wetlands, marine life, birds, fisheries and entire ecosystems are already being hurt by the spill, which continues to gush about 200,000 gallons per day.

Owned by Transocean Ltd. and contracted by BP, the Deepwater Horizon had been drilling an exploratory well approximately 52 miles southeast of Venice, Louisiana when it exploded Tuesday night, burned for 36 hours and sank in the Gulf of Mexico.

While this spill may seem far away, the implications of both deadly disasters for the Delaware River watershed are clear.  The Massey Coal disaster shows that extraction industries, in general, are not good neighbors: they see paying fines for life-threatening safety violations as a routine cost of doing business.

More immediately, the BP disaster occurred due to drilling an exploratory well.  The Delaware River Basin Commission, right now, is allowing 14 “test” or “exploratory” gas wells to be drilled in Wayne County, in the Delaware River watershed – Philadelphia’s watershed – without requiring any drilling companies to apply for a permit.

Clearing of land and road construction has already begun for these 14 natural gas wells in the Upper Delaware River Basin.  Residents report seismic testing underway with “thumper trucks” rolling down rural roads.  The Marcellus Shale industry has gotten enough leases signed so far to drill 40,000 to 50,000 gas wells in the watershed.

About 35 citizens packed the hearing room last Wednesday, May 5th, at the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) office in West Trenton, New Jersey.  Although gas drilling was not officially on the agenda, the majority of citizens who testified for five minutes each came to demand that the Commission close this loophole allowing test wells to be drilled without a permit.

The DRBC announced that it will not actually grant any drilling permits until it has developed its own set of internal rules regarding shale gas drilling, which requires fracking.  Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, involves injecting millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals and sand, in combination with horizontal drilling a mile underground, to release the natural gas.

Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, testified, “The DRBC needs to be covering exploratory and test wells in its rulemaking process.  We see an actual proliferation of these wells just in Wayne County alone.  If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it’s a duck.  These are gas wells, and the DEP has permitted [some of] them as production wells.  You must notify all operators that they need to come in before construction begins to get a DRBC permit.

“The tremendous amount of harm, pollution, spills, across Pennsylvania so far argues for restraint, caution, and transparency,” she concluded.

Cliff Westfall of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability testified, “This is a loophole so big you can drive a drilling rig through it.  We need to close the DRBC loophole [for exploratory wells].  All gas wells cause pollution, and these test wells are gas wells.”

Joe Levine described the damage from a test well the DRBC allowed to be drilled previously in the watershed, called the Robson well: “We had to hire a private plane to fly over it; we saw deterioration, a dead stand of trees showing runoff from the side.  We asked for testing for months.  But it took the PA DEP about 6 months to come out, and then they found diesel products, barium, chromium, and 10 different chemicals running off the site, into a pond, into a tributary to the Delaware River.

“We have contamination at the first model home of drilling in the Delaware River watershed.  We’ve been told there was a fish kill at that pond.

“These test wells don’t make any sense; they are insane and irresponsible,” he concluded.

Lawyer Jeff Zimmerman called on the DRBC to expand their rulemaking resolution to include exploratory wells.  “To do otherwise is arbirtrary and capricious,” he stated.

Filmmaker Josh Fox testified, with a voice strained by laryngitis, “When I visited Dimock in February last year, there was already contamination, flammable water, and problems with animals.  There were only 21 wells at that time.  Now Newfield, which has no experience in this part of the country, plans to drill 14 test wells in Wayne County as an experiment with one of the most sensitive ecological areas of the country.

“One of those wells is going in one and a half miles from my home.

“The analogy to the BP blowout is really appropriate.

“I don’t think it’s going to be a peaceful process if this drilling goes forward,” Fox concluded, clarifying, “I mean that as someone completely committed to nonviolence.”

Other testimony referred to the Philadelphia City Council resolution, which directed the DRBC to ban any permits related to shale gas drilling in the watershed until a cumulative impact study has been done.  The DRBC has not found funds for a cumulative impact study.

Barbara Arrindell, director of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, commented, “This gas industry is rich in cash, power, and pride.  Their test wells are exempt, but a mushroom farm, a golf course, gets inspected, considered, and stormwater controls put in before they are permitted.  Why are these test wells not even required to apply for a permit?  The BP well was an exploratory well too!”

The Minerals Management Service granted the BP project a “categorical exclusion,” a loophole that is designed for “minimally intrusive” projects such as outhouses and hiking trails.”

The citizens who packed the May 5th DRBC hearing collectively directed the DRBC to close its test well loophole, and to not issue separate water withdrawal permits for fracking, until its rulemaking process is complete.  This process may take 6 months or more.  But meanwhile, the Stone Energy billion-gallon water withdrawal permit for fracking may be issued in early July, and test well drilling is proceeding.

Past articles:

Shale Shame: Clearville, PA (from Philadelphia Weekly Press, 28.Apr.10)

Shale Shame: Cabot fined heavily for Dimock water contamination (from Philadelphia Weekly Press, 21.Apr.10)

Fire at Pennsylvania Fracking Site (from Philadelphia Weekly Press, 7.Apr.10)

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