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Hundreds Urge Gas Drilling Moratorium in Delaware River Watershed

July 19, 2010

Pro-moratorium rally prior to July 14th DRBC meeting. Richard Rogers traveled by train from Philadelphia; his back is to the camera. Vera Williams, a longtime peace and justice activist and children's book author from New York City, is in the foreground in profile. Photo: Ann Dixon

“Just one accident at the Crum [exploratory gas drilling well] site, 1 ½ miles from the Delaware River, would be a disaster,” Alice Zinnes testified last Wednesday, criticizing controversial new Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) decisions.  Catskill Mountainkeeper Wes Gillingham agreed:  “There is no excuse for going forward… when there’s been no cumulative impact study.  There is no logic to allow exploratory wells to proceed.  These are Special Protection Waters, not Special Pollution Waters!”

About 25 Philadelphians had signed up in person to testify in favor of a complete and total moratorium on gas drilling which they want the DRBC to enact.  They planned to oppose the ongoing drilling of “exploratory wells” in the Delaware River watershed, and to oppose a .7 million gallon/day water withdrawal from a tiny tributary to the Delaware River.  However, only one or two Philadelphians, including Delaware Riverkeeper Network staff biologist Faith Zerbe and environmentalist Ann Dixon, a member of the local group Protecting Our Waters, were actually able to testify before the cutoff time of 6 pm rolled around.

Faith Zerbe testified, “We have generated over 8000 letters in the last 8 days on behalf of a complete and total moratorium, from downstream communities.”  On Friday, Protecting Our Waters delivered another 571 letters and signatures to the DRBC, edging the total upwards.

Before the 1:30 pm public hearing began, six hundred and forty people packed a usually sleepy firehouse in Ewing, New Jersey last Wednesday, July 14th.   Buses full of landowners who have already leased their land to gas drilling companies had pulled in early.  All seats were taken by a mix of pro-drilling and anti-drilling landowners and environmentalists by the time another few hundred clean water advocates, who held a brief “No Water For Gas!” rally outside the firehouse at 1 pm, entered the hall.  About 168 people, the great majority environmentalists, were expelled from the meeting by officials citing fire code requirements.  Some waited for hours, still hoping to testify.

In May, the DRBC enacted a partial moratorium on gas drilling permits, to be kept in place temporarily until they issue their own set of rules later this year.  The partial moratorium enables exploratory wells to proceed without DRBC review.  Local residents near exploratory wells, and environmentalists throughout the region, have sharply opposed this exemption.  In June, the DRBC announced it would require new exploratory wells to be reviewed and permitted, but is allowing existing wells to go forward.

Water Withdrawal for Fracking Approved

At the meeting, Commissioners approved a five-year permit for Stone Energy, a gas drilling company, to cumulatively withdraw up to one billion, 277 million gallons of water from the tiny West Branch Lackawaxen River, to be mixed with toxic chemicals and used for fracking.  No plan currently exists for treatment of the resulting toxic wastewater.

“I visited the West Branch Lackawaxen last week, and I jumped over it,” Tracy Carluccio, Deputy Director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, testified later, objecting to the withdrawal on grounds that it threatens the health of the small stream.  “They plan to take ¾ of a million gallons a day from that stream, with no cumulative study whatsoever determining what the impacts will be,” Carluccio said.

The Commissioner representing the state of Delaware cast a lone vote against the water withdrawal, to cries of “Thank you, Delaware,” from clean water advocates.

A spokeswoman for the Lackawaxen River Conservancy testified quietly to the DRBC, “Your primary purpose is to protect water resources.  But we just measured the flow [of the West Branch Lackawaxen] at four cubic feet / second… with this withdrawal, how can it possibly remain a viable stream?”

More “Exploratory” Wells Approved

Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) Director Carol Collier also announced at the meeting that in addition to several test, or exploratory, wells, already being drilled without DRBC review, two more exploratory wells, which she called “scientific,” will be allowed to go forward without DRBC review.

Environmental advocates at the meeting testified formally that this decision violates the bylaws and mandate of the DRBC.  Jeff Zimmerman, counsel for Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, which has filed suit against the DRBC, testified, “Letters written by the National Park Service and Fish and Wildlife Commission compel you to review each exploratory well.”

With the Philadelphia contingent unable to testify, no one at the meeting mentioned the Philadelphia City Council resolution of March 25th, which called on the DRBC to ban gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin until an environmental impact statement is assessed.  City Council quietly passed a second resolution this June, calling for public hearings on the risks of unconventional gas drilling in Philadelphia’s watershed.  These hearings are now set for September 21st (scientists and public agencies) and September 22nd (advocacy groups and the general public).

“The BP well which blew out in the Gulf of Mexico was an exploratory well,” filmmaker Josh Fox reminded the Commission.  Fox, who screened his film GASLAND in Philadelphia July 7, recently went to the Gulf of Mexico to begin filming for his next film.  Fox lives near one of the exploratory wells in the Delaware River watershed, and said, “If there’s anything to learn from what’s happening in the Gulf, it’s that these extractive industries are incredibly environmentally destructive.”

Marcellus Shale Coalition Escalates Rhetoric

Last week the Marcellus Shale Coalition, funded by industry to advocate for policies which make gas drilling easier and more lucrative, issued a statement claiming that the DRBC partial moratorium amounts to “declaring war” on landowners in the Delaware River watershed.  It is not known whether the industry paid for the buses, T-shirts and caps used by the well-organized landowners at the DRBC meeting.  However, the statement may signal a shift towards more aggressive rhetoric.

“We have the unquestionable right to develop our property… We are tired of delays,” testified a landowner with the Northern Wayne Property Owners’ Association, adding, “I am not here to respond to every ridiculous argument made by uninformed protesters.”

Knowns and Unknowns

Pro-moratorium testimony focused both on known risks and on the unknowns.  A physician at the meeting said the intense toxicity of fracking fluid additives makes drilling inherently contaminating:  “As a physician, I believe at this stage the risks to human health are unacceptable.”

Many residents of Delaware River watershed areas where test wells are being drilled also focused on the lack of any impact studies.  John Roth of Milanville, PA, testified, “I live near Cawkins Creek, half a mile from a proposed test well…. There should absolutely be a required cumulative Environmental Impact Statement before any drilling…. You [DRBC] can prevent damage from taking place like we’ve seen in Dimock, Dunkard Creek, and elsewhere in Pennsylvania.”

Coralie Pryde, from Wilmington, Delaware, was one of the last to speak. “The lower reaches of the Delaware River estuary are just recovering, and native species are just beginning to return….Waste treatment is a concern because these waters are already overloaded… As a chemist and material scientist, I know we don’t know what the long-term effects are of these [fracking] chemicals in these combinations.”

Related Marcellus Shale News

Last week, the third high-ranking Rendell administration official in one year jumped ship to work for the gas drilling industry.  Gas drilling companies have publicly acknowledged pouring over $7 million dollars into lobbying efforts and into politicians’ campaign funds in Pennsylvania, according to a recent Common Cause report.

In Pennsylvania, the DEP slapped a $400,000 fine – small by extractive industry standards – on EOG Resources, responsible for the June 3 Clearfield blowout in which toxic wastewater and gas spewed 75 feet into the air for 16 hours before being brought under control.  The Marcellus Shale gas drilling company had used only one mechanism to keep the gas under control.  DEP Secretary John Hanger also said that workers responsible for the incident were not certified in well-control techniques.

Last week Range Resources announced it would name the chemicals, and their proportions, used at each of its fracked wells, for the first time, calling their own disclosure decision the “moral and ethical” thing to do.  The PA DEP has not required gas drillers to disclose which chemicals, and in which proportions, it uses at each well.


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