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Urban Uprising? Left out of DRBC Hearings, Philadelphia Holds Its Own March 8th

March 4, 2011

Submitted by Iris Marie Bloom

Fast on the heels of a major Sunday New York Times investigative report showing that high levels of radioactivity in toxic gas drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers — and are not monitored at drinking water intakes statewide – Philadelphia has its chance to speak up.  Next Tuesday, March 8th from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at City Hall, Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown is sponsoring a hearing to give area residents a direct voice in the raging debate about proposed gas drilling in the headwaters which supply Philadelphia’s drinking water.  Clean Water Action will make sure the testimony is transcribed and submitted to the Delaware River Basin Commission, the agency responsible for preventing acute, cumulative, and future pollution in the Delaware River watershed.  A moratorium on drilling in the Delaware River Basin, held in place by public pressure until now, is at stake; so are all the specific provisions of draft regulations put together by the Delaware River Basin Commission.  The moratorium is expected to be lifted after the public comment period ends on March 16th.

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown is sponsoring a Philadelphia Hearing Tuesday March 8 from 5:30 – 7:30 pm at City Hall

The Tuesday hearing is free and open to the public; anyone who wishes to testify may speak for three minutes, and people are strongly encouraged to attend as a show of concern.  Doors open at 5:15 and, given a first-come first-serve signup process, Protecting Our Waters is inviting musicians, magicians and comedians to entertain those who arrive by 4 PM to stand in line at the northeast corner entrance to City Hall.  Reynolds Brown is sponsoring the event along with Clean Water Action, Protecting Our Waters, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PennEnvironment, the Sierra Club of Southeastern PA, and other groups.

Hydrogeologist Ron Bishop, among the experts consulted by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, has examined the draft regulations closely and says they are inadequate. “Love Canal would pale in comparison” to the future pollution which could emerge generations and centuries later if drilling goes forward under the draft DRBC rules, he said.  Bishop says that an underground network of fissures include some fractures open to the surface, which could very slowly convey portions of the billions of gallons of radioactive toxic waste already underground from deep drilling into drinking water supplies and the environment.  This is what Temple University engineering professor and world-renowned toxic spills expert Dr. Michel Boufadel has been explaining as well: science does not support the argument that deep drilling is safe, even with zero human error, and even if no toxic radioactive waste was allowed to be discharged directly into rivers and streams.  The New York Times report said that even though industry is increasingly re-injecting their toxic waste streams back underground, “Even with recycling, the amount of wastewater produced in Pennsylvania [1.3 billion gallons over the past 3 years] is expected to increase because, according to industry projections, more than 50,000 new wells are likely to be drilled over the next two decades.”  The Delaware River Basin Commission draft regulations would allow 15,000 to 18,000 of those wells to be drilled in the Delaware River headwaters.

While the Delaware River Basin Commission held three public hearings last week, only a handful of Philadelphians were able to take the time off from work to make it up to Honesdale, PA or Trenton, NJ, to testify.  An industry PR firm, Quantum Communications, helped ensure that vociferous pro-drilling forces were first in line to testify, calling for no further delay in the start of drilling and calling for smaller setbacks from streams, springs and wetlands.  Quantum’s client is the American Natural Gas Association.

The DRBC did not hold hearings near any major population centers which depend on the Delaware River Basin for clean drinking water prior to its March 16th deadline for public comment on hydrofracking in the Delaware River watershed.  Now that Philadelphia is initiating its own hearing without assistance from the DRBC, it is not known whether the industry or its many front groups, PR firms and lobbying groups will again attempt to stack the testimony against further delay on drilling in the Delaware River watershed by physically getting their forces first in line, or by front-loading the testimony with pro- drilling public officials, who traditionally speak first.  Advocacy groups are encouraging ordinary people to ask their public officials to speak up strongly for continuing the moratorium for at least two years, since no other industry dumps toxic radioactive waste in rivers and streams.

As reports of illnesses from gas drilling air emissions in Pennsylvania and in western states continue to escalate, Governor Corbett exempted gas drilling operations last week from the remaining low-bar air pollution controls in Pennsylvania.  He also overturned Governor Rendell’s executive order forbidding any more leasing of state forest land to gas drillers, since 770,000 acres have already been leased.

Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection officials publicly claim to be on top of gas drilling problems.  But Ian Urbina reported in the Sunday New York Times that a PA DEP inspector who was not authorized to speak to the press told the reporter, “We simply can’t keep up…. There’s just too much of the waste.”

Under federal law, testing for radioactivity in drinking water at intake facilities is required only once every six to nine years.  But according to Urbina’s investigative report, “While the existence of the toxic wastes has been reported, thousands of documents obtained by The New York Times from the Environmental Protection Agency, state regulators and drillers show that the dangers to the environment and health are greater than previously understood.”  Urbina found that radioactivity in drilling waste is often 100 to 1,000 times above the safe federal drinking-water levels; sewage treatment facilities accepting gas drilling waste are generally not required to remove radioactive materials; and of 65 water intake plants downstream from busy drilling regions, “not one has tested for radioactivity since 2008, and most have not tested since at least 2005, before most of the drilling waste was being produced.”

The Times also found, thanks to Urbina’s seven months of investigative work, “never-reported studies by the EPA and a confidential study by the drilling industry that all concluded that radioactivity in drilling waste cannot be fully diluted in rivers and other waterways.”  Scientists say that radioactivity in waste fluids does not necessarily harm the people who are nearest to it. EPA researchers and other scientists are more concerned about ingestion through drinking water and through food.  Radium can enter the food chain by land and by sea, through farming and through fish; once radium enters the human body by eating, drinking, or breathing it, federal studies show that it can cause cancer and other health problems.

Advocacy groups encourage concerned citizens to do more than attend the March 8th hearing.  Paperless e-activist alerts are available from many groups, and with threats to forests, water, air and public health cascading, it is advisable to join more than one e-list.  The websites of groups sponsoring the March 8th event are all a good place to start: Clean Water Action, Protecting Our Waters, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, PennEnvironment, and Sierra Club. “But you don’t need as much guidance as you think you do just to call and write your state senator and state rep right now to express your outrage,” said Gerry Kaufman, a former legislator who volunteers with Protecting Our Waters and Clean Water Action.  “Ask for a moratorium on gas drilling – in our watershed, in our state forests, and statewide.  Just do it.”

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