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Activists Step Up Environmental Work Locally, Regionally

June 21, 2010

originally published in the Weekly Press June 21, 2010

Bits of good environmental news make their way, with difficulty, through the tide of bad.

As millions of living creatures sicken, struggle, and die in the Gulf of Mexico, taking livelihoods and hope with them, environmentalists locally and regionally are working hard to protect water resources, public health, and long-term livelihoods from the destructive impacts of gas drilling.

Last week, Philadelphia City Council passed a new resolution calling for a Joint Committee (Transportation and Public Utilities joined with the Environment Committee) to hold hearings on environmental and economic impacts of unconventional gas drilling.

Councilwoman Reynolds Brown, Councilman Jones, and Councilman Kenney introduced the resolution together.  It passed on Thursday, June 17th.  There is no timeline for the hearings yet, but they are likely to be held this summer.

Enough leases have been signed in the Delaware River watershed for the Marcellus Shale industry to drill upwards of 17,000 new wells, using high-volume slickwater hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling.

The sheer volume of freshwater taken permanently out of circulation by this type of drilling has introduced a new term to the discussion:  “de-watering.”  According to Sandra Steingraber, author of Living Downstream:  An Ecologist’s Personal Investigation of Cancer and the Environment, “This phenomenon, de-watering, has never occurred before.  We take billions of gallons of freshwater from the earth’s surface, contaminate it, put it a mile or two below, and hope it never comes back up.”

According to Conrad Daniel Volz, Ph.D, Director of the Center for Healthy Environments and Communities at the University of Pittsburgh’s Graduate School of Public Health, “This is essentially an industry that, over time, drills tens of thousands of wells, and [referring to the open pits dug at gas wells; each pit holds millions of gallons of toxic drilling waste fluids] leaves a petroleum distillery at every gas well.”

Volz asked, at a workshop on health and safety issues related to unconventional gas drilling on Saturday, June 19th, in Binghamton, New York, “Ever smelled frack fluid?  It’s overpowering petroleum distillates.”

PA Legislators Consider Protections, Moratoria

For the first time in Pennsylvania, a state Senator, Senator Ferlo, issued a press release last week saying that he is asking his colleagues in the PA Senate to cosponsor his bill for a one year statewide moratorium on new drilling permits – not just on state lands, but on private lands, where the great bulk of drilling takes place. Representative Levdansky is said to be the likeliest Representative to do the same in the Pennsylvania House.

This Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday are the last days available in this legislative session for citizens to make their views known to their legislators.

Ferlo’s one-year moratorium on new drilling permits is designed to give health and safety emergency workers a chance to do emergency planning for each gas well site.

During the June 7th explosion and fire which burned seven workers from a Marcellus Shale drilling crew, Volz said, “The burn victims had to drive themselves to the hospital.”  Volz, a risk assessment and emergency preparedness expert, said the most common longer-term health risks for workers and residents will “probably be asthma, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), and cancer.

Meanwhile, activists from many organizations have begun to see positive results from years of hard work for clean water protections in Pennsylvania. Two new sets of rules passed on Thursday, June 17th: If approved by the PA legislature, one new rule, called Chapter 95, will force the Marcellus Shale industry to remove more “total dissolved solids” (TDS) from their waste fluids, which come back up from down under five times saltier than the ocean, radioactive, and loaded with chemical toxins.

The other new rule, called Chapter 102, will prevent developers from cutting down forests along “exceptional value” streams and rivers, thus protecting 150-foot buffers along one out of every five river miles in the state. Forested buffers prevent flood damage, increase surface area, provide shade and nutrients for the stream, and create the right “tea” – the particular smell which guides fish home to spawn.

The current Pennsylvania legislative session closes this Friday.  PennEnvironment, Clean Water Action, Protecting Our Waters and other advocates are lobbying hard for several bills, including one (2213) providing essential minimal protections from unconventional gas drilling in PA, and another (2235) to create a three-year moratorium on further leasing in PA state forests.

Clean water advocates will not back a severance tax if it has pro-industry amendments attached to it which require “forced pooling,” a type of eminent domain which removes the right of landowners to refuse to allow drilling on or under their property.

Delaware River Basin Commission Partially Closes “Exploratory Well” Loophole

In a major victory for protectors of the Delaware River watershed, the DRBC announced last Monday it is closing the loophole which has allowed “exploratory” wells to move forward toward drilling without a DRBC permit.  However, at press time, least 5 gas wells already underway are still exempt from the announcement removing this “exploratory” exemption.  And the Stone Energy water withdrawal for Marcellus Shale drilling could still be approved at the next meeting of the DRBC.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network is planning to “protect our Delaware River with a demonstration at the July 14th DRBC meeting in West Trenton, NJ.”  Although they don’t have a bus at this time, DRN staff biologist Faith Zerbe announced via email that “a group of neighbors will be taking the day off from work and carpooling to the 1:00 pm meeting on July 14th… so I hope you can make it! It is a critical meeting to attend!”

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