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OUR NEIGHBORS’ HEALTH; City Council to Vote on Gas Drilling Resolutions January 27

January 7, 2011
Fracking operation, southwestern Pennsylvania.  Photo credit to Mark Schmerling.

Fracking operation, southwestern Pennsylvania. Photo credit to Mark Schmerling.

by Iris Marie Bloom

While Philadelphia City Council weighs its action options regarding natural gas drilling upstream, shale gas drilling impacts on human health elsewhere in Pennsylvania, and in Western states, are escalating.

Without waiting for the ongoing EPA study or a cumulative impacts study specific to the Delaware River Basin, the DRBC, the commission governing the Delaware River watershed, released its draft rules for fracking on December 8th, a step towards ending the gas drilling moratorium in the four-state watershed.  Only the New York Commissioner voted against releasing the draft rules, saying they are being issued “without the benefit” of needed study.

One day prior to the DRBC’s action, the EPA confirmed that gas drilling by Range Resources has contaminated two drinking water wells with benzene, a carcinogen, and other poisons. Range has obtained hundreds of drilling permits in Pennsylvania.  Ed Rendell’s former “point man” on the gas drilling issue now works in Governmental Relations for Range Resources.  On December 7th, the EPA issued an extraordinary “emergency” order for Range Resources to supply the affected families in Parker, Texas, with clean drinking water and to provide ventilation to prevent their homes from “imminent risk” of explosion.

The families had complained for months to state authorities and Range Resources, and got nowhere.  Finally, one resident sent a video to the EPA of his garden hose, which contained so much methane that it turned into a flame thrower.

Simultaneously, residents of the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming were told by the EPA not to drink their well water.  Multiple wells there have turned up with benzene and another toxic chemical used in fracking operations from drilling operations  by The Canadian company Encana.   Encana also drills in Pennsylvania.  Wind River Indian Reservation residents have also been told they must use fans or otherwise ventilate while bathing or washing clothes, to avoid the risk of explosion.

Health Impacts in Western Pennsylvania

Pam Judy, of Greene County, Pennsylvania, lives less than 800 feet from a natural gas compressor station.  “She has been constantly sick since the gas compressor facility opened in the early summer of 2009,” said Philadelphia photojournalist Mark Schmerling, who visited Pam in November 2010.  Lab tests have come back showing that she has benzene and phenol in her blood.

Stephanie Hallowich, of Hickory, Pennsylvania, told the Weekly Press she has to bring her children inside, shutting all the doors and windows, when plumes full of volatile organic chemicals from the nearby compressor station envelope her home.  That does not protect her, however, because “my water has been poisoned by nearby gas drilling activities,” Stephanie told the Weekly Press last April.  Stephanie and her husband, Chris Hallowich, built a new home in Hickory in 2007 on a beautiful hillside property in a rural area full of winding roads, forested streams, and pastoral charm.  However, the Hallowiches’ move coincided with the onset of gas drilling.  “Now the property is nearly worthless,” reported Mark Schmerling after his November visit.

Stephanie Hallowich of Hickory, Pennsylvania (Washington County), speaks out passionately after nearby gas operations put her family at risk from intense air pollution and poisoned their formerly pristine water. Photo credit to Mark Schmerling.

Terry Greenwood, a farmer from Daisytown, Washington County, Pennsylvania, never signed a gas lease.  He and his wife Cathy moved to their farm in 1988, but most of the property had been under lease since 1921.  When drillers moved in with hydrofracturing equipment and chemicals, they tore up much of the land, reducing the amount of land suitable for farming, Schmerling reported.  Worse, gas drillers ruined three of the original water sources on the farm.

In 2008, the Greenwoods’ cows drank tainted water from the formerly pristine pond on their farm.  The cows later delivered ten stillborn calves.

The Greenwoods now get water delivered for their animals, and have to drink bottled water themselves, even though previously the land produced unlimited quantities of clean water.  According to Schmerling, “The Greenwoods are furious with the drillers and with the politicians who have let them get away with such activity.”

Farmer Terry Greenwood of Daisytown, Pennsylvania (Washington County). His cows gave birth to ten stillborn calves after drinking from springs which had always provided abundant clean water. One of two springs, a pond and a drinking water well on his farm are now poisoned by gas drilling operations. Clean water is now brought in for his family and farm animals to drink. Photo credit to Mark Schmerling.

“It’s really sad,” commented Nadia Steinzor, Marcellus Shale Regional Organizer for Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project.  Steinzor said that Earthworks, working with expert toxicologist Wilma Subra to evaluate health impacts from shale gas drilling, found “asthma and other respiratory illnesses; nosebleeds, headaches, and pre-cancerous lung lesions” among residents of heavy drilling areas near the Barnett Shale of Texas.

“While everyone’s concerned about water, actually the health impacts from air pollution are severe,” Steinzor said. “It’s really sad to see people who have been living somewhere a long, long time, impacted not only physically, but emotionally.”

Pressure Politics Back East

Back east, a “firestorm of protest” has so far failed to stop the Delaware River Basin Commission from its move towards lifting the partial gas drilling moratorium in the Delaware River watershed.  Philadelphia draws 60% of its drinking water from the Delaware River and 40% from the Schuylkill River, which is also part of the Delaware River Basin and so also comes under DRBC rules for fracking.  Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said, “Thousands of watershed residents have written letters to the DRBC, in fact the most they’ve ever received on any issue, demanding a cumulative impact study prior to drilling.  The Governor of New York, Congressman Hinchey, Holt, and Sestak, and New York and Philadelphia City Councils have all weighed in with the same message.”

Under pressure from the state of Pennsylvania and from the industry, the DRBC released the complex, technical draft rules and set a short 90 day public comment period, after which they plan to finalize the rules and begin approving fracking permits and fracking water withdrawals from the scenic Upper Delaware River and its tributaries.  The DRBC may issue wastewater permits anywhere in the Basin.  The DRBC plans to end its public comment period, which went into effect in December while most people were trying to get set for the holidays, March 16th.  The DRBC announced only three public meetings throughout the 13,000 square mile, four-state watershed,  in an effort to avoid facing the public which they know does not support fracking.  The Riverkeeper Network, Protect our Waters, and others are now fighting to open up this process to real public input.

A Philadelphia Water Department staff member told the Weekly Press, “We’ve sat there in meetings with the DRBC and told them this [gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin] should not go forward.”  Publicly, the Water Department says their beefed-up water monitoring devices, which they hope the industry will pay for, should be able to protect Philadelphia’s water supply, despite the shale gas industry’s exemptions from the federal Clean Water Act and Safe Drinking Water Act.

On January 27th, Philadelphia City Council will consider a bill sponsored by Councilman Curtis Jones which recommends specifically that the DRBC’s March 16th public comment deadline be dropped; that there be at least seven meetings for public comment in the four-state Delaware River Basin, not just three; and that one of those meetings be held in Philadelphia.  The same set of recommendations includes a new requirement for PGW to include “externalities” — i.e. the environmental and public health impact from gas extraction — in its calculations of “cost” when it procures natural gas.  According to City Hall insiders, it was this gas procurement provision which caused Councilwoman Tasco to push back against the bill in December.

Councilman Curtis Jones and Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown have both taken steps to protect not only Philadelphia, but our neighbors throughout the state, from the health and environmental impacts of shale gas drilling.  City Council called for a three-year moratorium on shale gas drilling statewide on September 30th 2010, two days after two hundred Philadelphia area residents filled City Hall for a six-hour hearing on gas drilling’s impacts.

The new bill emerged out of that six-hour hearing.  Councilman Jones shepherded the bill past the Joint Committee on the Environment and Transportation in December, then tabled it right before the full Council session the next day, “so that so the full Council would have more time” to consider its details before voting on it in January.

“The urgency has increased greatly now that the DRBC has prematurely released its fracking regulations for our watershed, without any cumulative impact study,” commented Poune Saberi, who testified in favor of the bill last December.  “I’m concerned about the health impacts.”  Saberi is a physician in Philadelphia.

What Can Be Done?

Delaware Riverkeeper Network has put out an Urgent Action Alert on their website; you can go to delawareriverkeeper.org and write a letter to the DRBC.

City Councilmembers need to hear what Philadelphia area residents think about shale gas drilling in our watershed.  Protectingourwaters.com has an action alert on this.

Statewide, activists are gearing up for a major protest immediately prior to Tom Corbett’s inauguration as governor on Tuesday, January 18th in Harrisburg.  The demonstration will be at Soldier’s Grove, 10:30 AM – 12 noon, just west of the Capitol.  More information is available at GasTruthofCentralPA facebook page and at protectingourwaters.com

Finally, a brand-new radio show, “Frack Alert,” launched its first episode on New Year’s Day, focusing on the Delaware River Basin.  You can listen to Episode One, “Fractured Democracy,” at wfte.org and, if you live in West Philadelphia, call WPEB radio to ask them to play it too!

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