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Philadelphia City Council to Pass Bold Landmark Bill on Gas Drilling Jan. 27th

January 26, 2011
Weekly Press
• Wed, Jan 26, 2011

Directs PGW Not to Buy Marcellus Gas; Pushes DRBC to Include Philadelphia Area in Public Comment Process

By Iris Marie Bloom

Philadelphia’s City Council is expected to pass a bold set of recommendations designed to slow or stop shale gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed, at a full City Council session on Thursday, January 27th. The bill, introduced by Councilman Curtis Jones Jr. and backed by members of the Joint Committees on Transportation, Utilities and the Environment, makes Philadelphia the first city in the United States to go on record as determined not to buy gas extracted by unconventional gas drilling, commonly called “fracking.” In another precedent-setting recommendation included in the bill, PGW is directed to consider the environmental cost of extraction when buying future gas. “In our current context, when these chemicals are kept secret and the industry is exempt from key protective laws, and at least two known deaths which doctors believe are due to exposure to fracking chemicals have occurred, this is the least we can do,” commented Austin Kelley of the advocacy group Protecting Our Waters.

The vote will take place at a session beginning 10 AM on January 27th on the fourth floor of City Hall, in Council Chambers. The Council session is open to the public. More information, including the full set of recommendations to be passed, is available at www.protectingourwaters.com.

The bill also directs significant new pressure towards the Delaware River Basin Commission, the four-state entity mandated to protect water quality in the Delaware River watershed, to expand its public comment process on fracking regulations for this watershed. By releasing draft regulations for fracking in this watershed in December, the Commission signaled that it would not perform any cumulative impact study nor wait for the EPA study of hydrofracturing’s risks to drinking water and air, before moving forward with unconventional gas drilling in the important Delaware River Basin, which provides 10% of the U.S. population with drinking water. The environmental community has been “disturbed by the lack of any impacts study,” according to Gerald Kaufman of Protecting Our Waters. Family physician Poune Saberi said, in her testimony in favor of the City Council bill last December, “Evidence is mounting that human health impacts from gas drilling are sometimes severe.” Late last year Chris Mobaldi, of Rifle, Colorado, died from a rare pituitary tumor, which she, her family, and her family physician believe to be caused by exposure to gas drilling fumes. Asthma, reduced pulmonary function, severe nosebleeds, severe headaches, dizziness, blackouts, and pre-cancerous lung lesions are among the health impacts from shale gas drilling cited in studies by Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

If the public comment period is not expanded and extended, the DRBC will lift its moratorium on gas drilling in the Delaware River Basin after a brief comment period ending March 16th, paving the way for fracking operations to begin construction upstream from Philadelphia later this year. The DRBC just announced this week that there would be no public hearings anywhere in southeastern Pennsylvania throughout its ” extraordinarily short” public comment period on draft gas drilling regulations, according to Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

Protecting Our Waters, a Philadelphia-based nonprofit advocacy group, helped get signatures from organizations representing 300,000 people in the Delaware River watershed in an organizational sign-on letter sent last week to the Delaware River Basin Commission asking specifically that the public comment period be extended for three more months after March 16th, and that 7 public hearings be held throughout the huge four-state, 13,000 square-mile watershed rather than just three. The letter, drafted by Delaware Riverkeeper Network and sent by Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, has apparently had no impact on the Delaware River Basin Commission’s plans.

“We need City Council, Mayor Nutter, and the entire Philadelphia legislative delegation, as well as our federal Representatives and Senators, to fight for the Delaware River watershed right now,” said Ann Dixon of Protecting Our Waters. Ann made many visits to City Hall encouraging Council members to take a strong stand throughout 2010. “What’s fracked cannot be unfracked,” she added. “There’s no excuse for moving forward while such serious concerns are being raised.”

Unconventional gas drilling in shale, a new technology used in Pennsylvania only since 2007, became exempt in 2005 from key federal environmental laws including the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, and Superfund Law. It’s called “fracking” because it includes a series of explosions deep underground, like mini-earthquakes, to fracture the shale, using a high volume of water, toxic chemicals, and sand. The chemicals are kept secret due to the 2005 loophole abrogating community right-to-know laws. Health impacts from the chemicals and from the toxic substances mobilized from deep underground and brought to the surface, which move through water and air, are a growing concern.

In addition to public health impacts from the chemicals, what City Council is concerned about, and what scientists in the U.S. and globally are increasingly focused on, is not just the dangerous “fracking” stage of extraction but rather “the whole fracking enchilada,” a term author, lecturer and filmmaker Sandra Steingraber coined to describe the cradle to grave and cumulative impacts of the entire process of extraction, from deforestation at stage one to toxic waste troubles at the end.

The 2010 “State of the Bay” report on the Chesapeake Bay reports that fracking operations in the Susquehanna River watershed now threaten the fragile early recovery the bay is making from severe pollution from multiple sources, according to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. An 87-page report issued by the UK’s Tyndall Center on Climate Change last week urges a moratorium on shale gas drilling in the UK due to the water and air contamination experienced due to shale gas drilling in the U.S. so far, as well as scientific reports that this type of gas drilling makes climate change worse and delays needed investment in urgently needed sustainable technology. The state of Arkansas has currently imposed a statewide moratorium on new gas drilling permits because of hundreds of earthquakes associated with deep well injection of hydraulic fracturing waste fluids in Arkansas. The state of Wyoming recently became the first state in the U.S. to successfully pass a law requiring complete chemical disclosure of fracking fluid chemicals. Pennsylvania has no such protections in place. It took Wyoming activists ten years to get the requirement passed, according to Earthworks Oil and Gas Accountability Project.

Jerry Silberman, organizing on behalf of the City Council bill with Protecting Our Waters, urged members of the general public to attend the hearing and testify. “This affects everyone,” he said. “Unlike the old type of shallow conventional drilling, this new kind of unconventional gas drilling threatens public health and has known negative environmental impacts on air, water, aquatic life, climate, wildlife, and forests, all of which are vital to our quality of life and our economy.”

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