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Delaware Town Board and Local NY Zoning Can Regulate Gas Drilling


I usually try hard not to say,  “I told you so.”  More,  I usually try not to end an opinion with something that sounds like,  “Nanny, nanny, poo, poo.”

First, it’s unseemly and impolite.

Second, it’s obnoxious.

Third,  it doesn’t make friends or influence people.

With that in mind,  “I told you so!”

Last month,  I suggested  the Delaware Town Board  could use its zoning prerogatives to protect the health, wealth, welfare  and happiness of   The Town of Delaware by creating  protected  areas within its jurisdiction where gas drilling would be banned.  The suggestion was met with a  scoffing  opinion that  I just didn’t understand  New York’s  Municipal Home Rule statute.

The next afternoon,  at  the monthly meeting of the Sullivan County Legislature,  I and others  repeated the  silly notion of local zoning controls being used to regulate the siting of gas wells.  The Board was voting on a resolution to ban drilling from County-owned property.  Some citizen speakers wanted the County to expand the  ban to areas of the  privately-held sector.  Once again,  the idea was  met with  head-shaking and  a some impatience by certain legislators.

Usually,  when I know I’m right and others just don’t get it,   my first instinct is to shake them by their cheeks until their brains rattle with sense.  After 40+ years  of being an active citizen,  I’ve learned that that is an ineffective tactic.

So here’s an idea:   this Wednesday,  April 21st at 7:00 PM in the  Delaware Town Hall in Hortonville,  the Town of Delaware will hold  its monthly Board meeting.  After reading  Breathing’s re-cap of last month’s meeting,  some residents  organized support for the Town Resolution Supervisor James Scheutzow  had presented at the March  Town Board about gas drilling.  They even put a petition in support of the resolution at The Callicoon Wine Merchant and Windy Hill cheese shop(s).  (The resolution can be read in its entirety here.)

The petition is still there and has garnered an impressive number of signatures.  (If you live in the Town of Delaware,  you’re eligible to sign it and besides,  the two shops are a pleasure to visit.)

The thing is,  since those meetings last month,  the New York State Assembly has begun considering several  bills our New York State counties, towns and villages must recognize when dealing with the issue of drilling.

First, on April 2, 2010, NYS Assembly bill 10490 was referred to the New York Assembly’s  Environmental Conservation Committee (EnCon).  The Bill  will establish a moratorium on gas drilling in New York State until 120 days after the Environmental Protection Agency releases its study of the gas industry and its  impacts.

To my way of thinking,  all  citizen-generated resolutions about gas drilling must  incorporate this commonsensical piece of proposed legislation.

Second — and my personal favorite  — on April, 13, 2010,  NYS Assembly Bill  10633 was referred to the Assembly’s EnCon Committee.  This  “home rule” bill makes explicit the notion that  local governments  have and will have zoning control over where gas drilling occurs in their jurisdictions no matter what powers of jurisdiction a  State authority may  claim. (Obviously, local zoning ordinances cannot discriminate,  but if a  local government has a   bona fide rationale for instituting  protections and does not over-reach or regulate too restrictively, their actions are likely to  be upheld in New York State courts.)

In a bold effort to support local sustainability, to protect local resources and to prevent harm to our residents,  members of the State Assembly are making it clear that localities have the right and duty to defend and protect their local resources and residents.

No longer will  New York State villages, towns  and counties with zoning boards have the right or leeway to blame the State when gas wells or other potentially injurious enterprises  sprout up in their school yards or rural residential areas as is threatened, for example, across the River in Damascus, Pennsylvania.

Inaction will no longer be an option for local governments in New York.  It  will now be clear that if local governments do not regulate gas drilling enterprises within their jurisdictions, they are choosing to support  the short term pecuniary interests of a few lessors over the long-term and communal interests of  the land, water and people they are obligated to defend and protect.

So, instead of ending this  with “I told you so,”  I will ask  citizens throughout New York State  to petition  their local governments to adopt resolutions and/or ordinances that:

  • support  A10490’s  requirement that a moratorium be effected in New York State until 120 days after the Environmental Protection Agency submits its report on hydraulic fracturing;  and
  • amend  or enact zoning laws which preserve and protect the local citizenry and their natural resources.

An example of a zoning ordinance written  in Nockamixon, PA is available here. Although  Pennsylvania and New York State regulations are often baffling  in their differences,   the language of the Ordinance is instructive;  as is a reading of this article and its links which help explain  the legal reasoning that New York  and Pennsylvania  State courts might bring to considerations of local zoning ordinances that regulate drilling. An important legal tenet is that the decision of a  State Supreme Court may be cited as precedent in other states in the absence of  more weighty legal decisions.  That does not  mean the precedent will stick,  but it does mean it will be treated with value  when a different state court weighs similar legal issues.

 
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Posted by on April 18, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Tillman, Janyszeski : Dimock and Callicoon


First,  who is   Mayor Calvin Tillman from DISH, Texas and why should any of  us  care that he spent  last week in a whirlwind tour of  New York and Pennsylvania communities?

Three years ago,  Calvin Tillman  was elected  Mayor of DISH,  Texas, which  is located in the heart of the  Barnett Shale about 25 miles north of Fort Worth.

DISH  occupies no more  than 2 square miles,  is home to about 180 residents and its  annual operating budget  is a mere $70,000.  (For reference,  The  Incorporated Village of  Liberty, NY  covers 2.39 square miles,  is home to 3,975  residents and has an annual GENERAL  budget of $3,798,804.00.)

According to  Mayor  Tillman’s  presentation (which Breathing heard in both  Dimock, PA and  Callicoon, NY)   DISH is also home to  “eleven natural gas compressors as well as  an associated treating facility, four natural gas metering stations, around eighteen natural gas wells within its corporate limits,  fifty plus wells just outside  its corporate limits”  and is where  “eleven high pressure natural gas pipelines converge.” (Please find aerial views  here.)

The Mayor  and his  residents became increasingly alarmed by   the noise  generated at the compressor site.  “One compressor creates noise at 85-90 decibels…and DISH has 11.”   (According to the American Speech Language Hearing Association,  “Sounds louder than 80 decibels are considered potentially dangerous.”)  Although Tillman was eventually able to  obtain noise abatement  around the compressors,  a foul stench —  apparently emanating from the same site —  continued to  permeate the town  and   “all the trees along the compressor site were dead or dying.”

After  complaining about  the odor for several years,  “The person who finally came to look said  he couldn’t determine the source of the odor.”

Eventually,  five corporate operators performed a joint air study  and  concluded,  “no natural gas leaks were found that would be detectable to the human nose.”

The stench worsened  and as a result,   DISH  spent approximately 15% of its annual budget to commission an independent air study  which  “assessed thirty-one  citizens and former citizens of the town….  The laboratory results confirmed the presence of multiple recognized and suspected human carcinogens in the fugitive air emissions present on several locations tested in the Town of DISH….  61% of  health effects reported [by study participants] are known health effects of the chemicals detected in the DISH air study.   These health affects include: difficulty in breathing, brain disorders, chronic eye irritation, dizziness, frequent nausea, increased fatigue, muscle aches, severe headaches, sinus problems, throat irritation, and allergies.”

In his presentations, Tillman added,  “All the commissioned tests were taken on private property within 100 feet of homes and children.”

According to the Occupational  Safety and Health Administration (OSHA),  “The maximum time-weighted average (TWA) exposure limit is 1 part of benzene vapor per million parts of air (1 ppm) for an 8-hour workday and the maximum short-term exposure limit (STEL) is 5 ppm for any 15-minute period.”

WFAA – TV lends credence to  Mayor Tillman’s concerns about air quality,  “So imagine the reaction of scientists looking at an air sample from a Targa Resources compressor station outside Decatur, west of DISH in Denton County. The sample revealed a level of 1,100 parts per billion of benzene.”  (Note:  1,100  ppb  =  1.1 ppm)

As  the Mayor pointed out,   recommended levels are based on a healthy 35 year old man’s exposure  over an eight hour period, five days a week.  Exposures are not based on the effects of exposure on pregnant women or children.   “Why  aren’t they based on pregnant women and children?” he asked rhetorically.  “Because they shouldn’t be exposed at all,”  he said.

(DISH  residents  are exposed  24/7.   Readers interested in learning more about the  DISH air study are encouraged to visit the Mayor’s site where the results have been published  and he  answers those  who have attempted, unsuccessfully, to debunk its results.  During his presentation, Mayor Tillman affirmed  that since the results of   the DISH air quality tests have been published,  “The Texas Commission on Environmental Quality (TCEQ) validated  the DISH air study in an internal memo.  They’re going to install a permanent  air monitoring unit in DISH.  If they’d  debunked our study,  they wouldn’t  have spent the money for that.”   The  TCEQ monitor will record air quality in DISH in real time and anyone  will be able to follow the results on the internet.  If you’re interested in hearing from DISH residents who have suffered debilitating health effects,    Split Estate,  presents  their stories. )

Although  concerns in DISH, Texas  are somewhat different from those raised  by drilling in  Dimock, PA or  the   Marcellus Shale in New York and the Delaware River Basin,  local residents   believed  those of us living in the Delaware River Basin would benefit from hearing about the “DISH experience.”   Mayor Tillman agreed  and  accepted invitations  to meet with some of our local communities.

Unlike most elected officials,  Tillman receives no compensation for his mayoral duties and he  refuses any compensation, reimbursement or sponsorship for his informational tours.

On Friday February 19, Mayor Tillman met in a closed-door session  in Narrowsburg, NY  with local policy makers and elected officials.  Neither the press nor the public attended and  beyond rumors that 20 or so attendees conferenced with the Mayor,  we have no information as to who attended or the scope of their conversations.

During  the afternoon of the 19th,  Tillman, accompanied by members of the press and private citizens, helped delivered 17 cases of fresh water to  Dimock, PA resident,  Pat Farnelli  for use by her and other familes  whose water has  been rendered useless by a toxic soup of  contaminants such as methane, dissolved solids, heavy metals, minerals, barium and strontium.  Approximately 18  Dimock families —  the number continues to grow — have filed suit against   Cabot Oil and Gas (Fiorentino et al. v. Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. et al., No. 09-2284, complaint filed M.D. Pa. Nov. 19, 2009)  for the degradation of their water supplies.  Although the drilling company has provided drinking water to some residents,  Farnelli says  her family doesn’t  qualify  for deliveries.  “There are  six or seven  gas wells  within about 700 feet of my house.  The  last time  we checked,  the methane saturation  of our water  was about 12%.  The DEP  [Department of Environmental Protection] said they won’t make Cabot  deliver water to us until our saturation is higher — maybe 30% or so — that’s what I’ve heard.  Between 30-50% is  when  the methane starts rumbling before the wells explode.  Four or more of my neighbors have had their wells explode.  Not just Norma’s.  But the  methane concentration  in our well  isn’t that high,  yet.”

When Breathing asked Ms. Farnelli if she had anything in writing from either  Cabot  or Pennsylvania’s  Department of Environmental Protection  (DEP)  explaining the 30% ceiling,  she said, “No.  It’s just what we’re told.”

In response to a question from Mayor Tillman,  Ms. Farnelli  explained  that when her children “drank water from the family well,  they’d get a terrible stomach ache and throw up.  They’d just double over.    Used to be, they’d drink water at the school, and they’d be fine but  whenever they drank our home  water,  they’d get sick.   And now,  the water at the school’s turned off, too.”   (A drill pad was erected on the Elk Lake School grounds after The Susquehanna River Basin granted  approval in July 2009.   See Docket #37.)

(Later  in the evening,    Breathing was in the Elk Lake School for a discussion of gas drilling sponsored by  The League of Women Voters.   The school’s water fountains were turned off.  Students  and staff are confined to drinking from bottled water dispensers  although water continued to flow to  lavatory sinks and toilets.    According to several attendees, students and parents were informed by  the Elk Lake School District that  installation of bottled water  was a precaution against the spread of  “the H1N1 virus.”  (Link to article written prior to the start of drilling.)  According to a December 9, 2009 article at  The Independent Weekender,  drinking fountains were shut down after the pump system “malfunctioned”  on October 15, 2009.  The  District Superintendent said the shutdown had nothing to do with drilling or hydraulic fracturing at the school site.   Further,  he stated  the water has been tested, found safe  and repairs would be completed over the Christmas break.  Instead, according to officials,  fountains were turned off  to prevent spread of  the H1N1 virus.)*

During Mayor Tillman’s presentations at both the Elk Lake School auditorium and The Delaware Community Center in Callicoon,  he was adamant that certain areas should be off limits to well drilling pads.  “You do not have to site them on school yards. You make this hazard a risk when you put it  in school yards and in peoples’ front yards.”

Locally,  the Wayne Highlands School District has been approached  by Hess about a potential leasing of school properties for drilling.

When  Farnelli was asked about her own health,  she admitted she’s undergone testing for lupus.   “The doctor ordered some blood tests for  metals,  but I haven’t had them done.  We don’t have health insurance.  Even though I’m on disability and my husband’s  cook job  barely pays the bills,  we don’t qualify for assistance and we sure can’t afford health care.”

“I feel like we were naive for signing the leases,” Farnelli continued.   “We sure aren’t prospering.  I wish we’d never signed.  The landman told us they probably  wouldn’t drill; that there’d  be little or no lasting damage or impact;  that there’d  be a commotion for two or three weeks, and then there’d be a little thing like a fireplug on a square of concrete in the hayfield left.  He said it was almost like winning the lottery and that’s how they were still talking Thrusday night at Elk Lake at the royalty owners’ meeting…about winning the gas well lottery.  They said the sign-on  bonus was the most anyone would pay  —  $25 per acre  —  and that it was like free money.  They made it sound  patriotic and  clean and green —  like getting America off of foreign oil dependency.   When   Norma’s  [Fiorentino] well blew up on New Year’s Day…we’ve been kicking ourselves.   The  Carter’s  well vent exploded  6 or 7 times.  Now,  I worry about my kids.”

“We were told everyone would get a  methane tester  for our basements but Cabot said the equipment wasn’t  necessary.  The  DEP showed up here with a Cabot representative and they were pretty jovial when they didn’t  find  methane in the basement.  Then they said they’d  found some  at our  well head and that they needed me to vent  it  because they’d found it in the water.   My husband wasn’t home and I didn’t know what I had to do.  They  didn’t explain anything and they said they couldn’t do it for me.  I asked for help a couple of times but they said I needed a big wrench.  Two days went by and  all they’d say was my house could  blow up.”

At this point in the story,  Mayor Tillman asked Ms. Farnelli for  the name of her DEP contact and said he planned to contact  him.

Throughout  Dimock, signs of poverty are  clearly visible and  the state of  dirt roads traveled by heavy drilling trucks was impossible to ignore.  Ruts were so deep and continuous that   humps as high as 8-9″ threatened  the under carriages of low-riding vehicles and, in part,  may have prompted  the Mayor’s question in Callicoon (below)  about the state of our  local roads.

On February 20th,  the Mayor was back in Sullivan County at the Delaware Community Center in Callicoon, NY where he was joined by Nancy Janyszeski,  Chair of the  Board of Supervisors of Nockamixon Township and Pennsylvania Chair of the Lower Wild and Scenic Delaware River.  They were  greeted by a standing-room only crowd that was a  mix of drilling advocates,  lessors and opponents of gas drilling.

After  explaining the results of air quality tests conducted by DISH (see above)  Tillman addressed  issues of hydraulic fracturing and  recommended several precautionary measures.   “I saw in Dimock that drill pads  are situated next to homes.   In Texas, local authorities are allowed to permit a well  which I was shocked to hear local ordinances can’t do here.   It needs to come back to the local level. In theory,  Chespaeake could buy and tear down this building and put in a well and there’s nothing your local governments  could do about that. They might buy a city block like in Fort Worth  and put a pad site. What’s good for Albany might not be good for here. Urge your local officials to get the local control back to the local level.”

Supervisor Janyszeski  echoed the Mayor’s concern about local control.  Nockamixon has used zoning  to  hold the drills at bay until  protections of its water and land are in place.  “We’ve  always  understood the benefits of drilling, but we need to make sure it’s safe.  We’re in  Special Protection Waters.  We have a Wild and Scenic Rivers designation.  The proposed drilling site in Nockamixon is on an Exceptional Value Stream.

“Hundreds  of leases were signed  before we even knew they were in town,”  Janyszeski said.  “The gas people say  they don’t need local permits.

“The  drilling will be for a short-term  and our communities will be left with the clean up   but the gas companies  come in and  say, ‘We  don’t need a permit  from local governments.  If you or I want to put an addition on our house, we need a permit.  Why don’t then need one?”

At which point, most of the audience broke into spontaneous applause.

Janyszeski then discussed an  amicus brief filed by,  among others,   Nockamixon Township, The Delaware Riverkeeper and Damascus Citizens in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concerning the ability of local governments to control  gas drilling within their borders.

According to the  Court’s ruling,  “Municipalities have a unique authority and responsibility in the regulatory framework which must be maintained; they ‘give consideration to the character of the municipality, the needs of the citizens and the suitabilities and special nature of particular parts of the municipality.’”   In the end,  the court’s  decision permits a local regulatory body to enact “traditonal zoning regulations that identify which uses are permitted in different areas of the locality,  even if such regulations preclude oil and gas drilling in certain zones….”    However,  the decision also restricted the scope of  local jurisdiction,  “We do not, for instance, suggest that the municipality could permit drilling in a particular district but then make that permission subject to conditions addressed to features of well operations regulated by the [Pennsylvania Oil and Gas] Act.”  (Bold added for emphasis.)  Essentially, when it comes to actual drilling practices and operations,  the  Court  upheld that Pennsylvania State law will carry more force than local regulations.

In response to the ruling,  Nockamixon Township has  amended old zoning ordinances in order to restrict  gas and drilling operations  to “light industrial and quarry zones.”   Also,  the Town has strictly enforced  weight limits on all its bridges.

“It means  companies  have  more hurdles to jump,”  said Janyszeski.

Tillman  reiterated  the importance of local involvement,  “Your local authorities  have to insist  drilling companies use  green completions.  Flaring isn’t necessary.  They don’t have to store  the drilling waste in pits. Make sure  there’s a system for vapor recovery on condensate tanks and other emission sources.  They can use  zero emission dehydrators and pneumatic valves.  The companies say it costs too much but green completions actually save product which makes the companies more money.”

In amplification  of Tillman’s  statement that,  “Companies will tell you the fracking fluid’s safe.  It  contains over 250 chemicals and over 90% of them have negative health effects,”  Ms. Janyszeski  suggested other localities conduct baseline water testing as was done in Nockamixon Township.  “We used  Wild and Scenic  River funding to perform our first round of testing.  Now  we know how our water is.  We tested streams near proposed sites  and ten wells and  discovered we have TCE in a couple wells.  As a  result of the successful testing, we got another $25,000  from The Wild and Scenic River funds for a second round.  I’d add, since hearing what  Mayor Tillman’s done with air testing in DISH,  that’s also something our local governments should be looking at.”

(Linda Babicz,  moderator of the program,  interjected that  our local  Multi-Municipal Taskforce is  working to ensure,  through permits,  that drilling companies will be responsible  for testing before any gas  wells are drilled or worked on.  In addition,  she offered,  “We don’t have Home Rule  in New York State.  That’s why our local governments  don’t have the right to demand permits.”**

As to assertions made by drilling proponents that  gas drilling will be  an economic boon for local municipalities,  Mayor Tillman addressed the issue of  declining tax revenues in DISH.  “During my tenure as Mayor,  I’ve doubled the size of the town to 2 square miles.  The [underground] minerals  are  just an extension of the  property for taxation purposes.  The average well loses about 50% of  its mineral value after the first year of production. The only way to maintain the value,  is  to drill more and more….   and the cost of natural gas goes down……  a lot of cities in Texas and in the Barnett shale  are in trouble. They’re having to raise taxes and lay off people. I liken this to heoin. It’s like an addictive drug  and a lot of  [Texas] cities got addicted to it.”

“There are other  ways to think about it,”  the Mayor continued.  “We used to get 60%  of our tax revenues from minerals.  We’ve probably spent that much to clean up. If you don’t  have minerals on your property  and you don’t  get ‘mailbox money,’   it probably isn’t worth  it.  And even those who get the mailbox money,  they’ll probably say it isn’t worth it.  The former mayor [of Dish]  sold mineral rights.  He’s  one of my supporters now.   [The companies]  have  kicked in money for parks, but if you weigh the costs and benefits,  I just don’t think there’s been  an overall benefit.”

When he was asked about the kinds of jobs  the gas industry’s created in Texas, Tillman  said,  “Most drilling rig crews are transient.  They’ll come  for two weeks and then they’ll go somewhere else.  They live on the  pad site — seven days on and seven days off.”

When asked about  the health impacts of drilling on drilling  workers,  Tillman responded,  “There’s probably  stuff that doesn’t get reported.  There have been  some accidents where  workers got asphyxiated and died. There’ve been  explosions on sites and people have  died.  There are signs,  ‘No Open Flames’  near wells because of  the methane.  I called OSHA   for the workers but they’re  only considered temporary employees so they don’t go through OSHA.”

One  audience member asked  Mayor Tillman  to address the impact  of  hydraulic fracturing on organic farms.  “The only other air study done besides ours [outside of litigation]  was at an organic goat farm in Fort Worth.  The company was flaring a well. [The study] detected the same toxins  as ours did.  She  has to constantly test her pastures.  I assume you’d have to do that at your own expense until you win a long court battle.”

(According to  The Northeast Organic Farming Association of New York (NOFA) and an article in The Post Standard,  “The number of organic farms in New York has tripled since 2006″  while the market for organic goods has  expanded 20%  over the last ten years.  According to The United States Department of Agriculture’s  2008  Survey of Organic Growth,  “Nationally,  New York ranks fourth in the number of organic farms behind California, Wisconsin, and Washington.  Total area devoted to organic production in New York totaled 168,428 acres. Value of sales of organically produced commodities in the state totaled $105.1 million, ranking seventh nationally and accounting for 3.3 percent of total U.S. organic sales.”)

At the end of his prepared remarks,  Mayor Tillman recommended several actions that should be taken by  local and state governments:

Develop ordinances related to oil and gas exploration prior to permitting any wells.
Local Ordinances should require road use agreements
Local ordinances should require green completions
Understand that there are places that should be off limits for drilling.
Wells should not be located in school playgrounds, and pipeline should not be run through front yards

Impose a severance tax

Require the latest emission lowering technology, including vapor recovery, and zero emissions dehydration, and pneumatic valves

Work together in groups when signing leases
Do not be the mole, working against your neighbors

Of the severance tax enacted by the State of Texas, he said,  “Here’s what I wish your legislators would consider.  We don’t have a state income tax in Texas.  We have the severance tax on the gas companies.  It’s good for a lot of reasons.   The tax is paid by volume on the gas so if you’re leasing,  you’ve got a measurement of how much your wells are producing.  It’ll tell you how much gas is coming out of the ground and how much money you should be getting.”   (In a previous Breathing article, I referenced a court judgment that found   Chesapeake had defrauded royalty owners in Texas out of $134 million in payments by under-reporting the amount of  gas Chesapeake extracted from its lessor’s wells.)

Tillman continued to tout the benefits of enacting a severance tax,  “Do you have enough inspectors in  New York?   A severance tax could pay for that, too.”
Then, looking out over the audience,  he asked,  “How are the roads holding out around here?”  When the audience groaned and laughed, he said,  “A severance tax can fix that.”

But the final recommendation which drew a standing ovation from the crowd was this,   “Do not issue another permit until these things are accomplished!”

******

*The article does not specify what agency tested the water.  I am planning to make contact with the  school in order to obtain more clarity.  If I succeed,  I will certainly report back here.

**Actually,  there is a weak version of  Home Rule in New York State that permits localities to narrowly  regulate within their own borders so  long as the State of New York approves.  When Sullivan County attempted to use it relative to a  Room  Tax  on our hospitality industry, we discovered that  the process is arduous,  complicated and is ruled by “windows of opportunity.”

 
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Posted by on February 22, 2010 in Uncategorized

 

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Nockamixon Township Peforms Baseline Water Tests


(Breathing Is Political extends its appreciation to The Intelligencer and Amanda Cregan for  allowing  me to re-print the following article which first appeared  August 18, 2009. The “Cabot property” referenced in the article is the one Leni Santoro and I visited during our River Road Trip.  A photo is viewable here.  Please note that the berm around the frack pool did not appear to be  more than three feet high and the  return fence (running perpendicular to the road) was no higher than  2-3 feet. Because so few people we met during our journey were cognizant of   drilling and hydraulic fracturing or the threat  they pose to our  aquifers and land,  I wanted  people here in the Upper Delaware Basin to know what some of   our sister communities  are doing  to protect themselves.)

By: AMANDA CREGAN Bucks County Courier Times
Scientists are beginning to sample wells and water sources in the township. It will serve as proof if the water is poisoned by gas drilling.

If Nockamixon’s groundwater is poisoned during natural gas extraction, officials will have the evidence.

Scientists with Princeton Hydro, a New Jersey-based water and wetlands resource management company, are traveling throughout the township this week to sample wells, streams, creeks and aquifers.

With a $25,000 grant, the Lower Delaware River Wild and Scenic Management Committee, a group of governmental representatives from Pennsylvania and New Jersey, voted in September to do the testing as a protective measure.

Delayed all summer by frequent rainstorms, scientists have completed testing water wells at nine homes and the Upper Bucks Regional EMS headquarters.

Now they’re roving the township, gathering 20 samples from creeks and streams. Overall, water data will stretch over a 300-square-mile region.

“We’re testing for a whole suite of chemical parameters,” said James P. Shallenberger, senior project manager for Princeton Hydro. “Right now, the objective is just to establish some base lines and sense what the water is like. If there is any drilling done, there will most likely be some follow up work closer to those drill sites.”

If the water was to become contaminated, the Lower Delaware River management committee argues, this baseline, pre-drilling data could be used to make the case that drilling was the cause.

“The baseline testing is extremely important. Because all the discussion we’ve had about accountability and liability, the onus is on us to show the integrity and clarity of our water and have documentation on it,” said the committee’s Pennsylvania chairwoman Nancy Janyszeski, who also serves as Nockamixon’s supervisor chairwoman.

Scientists are focusing their water testing on both sides of the former Cabot Industries property, she said.

The Cabot property on Beaver Run Road, just of Route 611 near Revere, is the only site in the gas drilling permit application stages at the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The 102-acre property was home to a specialty metals production operation. The site underwent a federal environmental cleanup in the early 1990s.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has given the Cabot site a clean bill of health.

The Lower Delaware River management committee is worried that one misstep at a drilling site in Nockamixon could spell disaster for its neighbors.

Township homeowners rely on private water wells and septic systems, and many are already grappling with a diminishing groundwater supply.

Natural gas is extracted thousands of feet below the surface via hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The process uses vast amounts of water, mixed with sand and other chemicals, injected into the ground under high pressure to create fractures in the rock and allow the oil or gas to be more easily withdrawn.

Like already-affected municipalities across the country, Nockamixon officials want the gas company to disclose what chemicals are being used, but it’s considered a trade secret and is exempted by federal law.

About 250 homeowners have signed leases with Michigan-based gas drilling company Arbor Resources. Nockamixon supervisors have asked Bucks County Court to overturn a decision by the township’s zoning hearing board, which decided Feb. 9 that township ordinances go too far in restricting drilling and agreed with Arbor officials that the state’s Oil and Gas Act trumps local regulations.

If groundwater is poisoned in the drilling process, the burden of proof will be with the gas company, said Shallenberger.

“The state rules put the burden of proof on the drilling company. If there is a problem or if someone else reports a water quality issue within six months that the drilling occurs, there is a presumption the drilling company is responsible for a change in water quality,” he said.

Although these samplings would serve as a before-and-after picture of Nockamixon water quality, it would bring little relief for homeowners suffering the consequences.

“Water is crucial resource for everyone,” he said.

Princeton Hydro’s water samples will be sent to the laboratory. Results are expected in a month.

August 18, 2009

 

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