The Delaware River Basin Commission’s agenda for July 15, 2009 contained twenty docketed items for review. The meeting was scheduled for 1:00 pm. At noon, except for some media crews, the Hearing room was empty. By 12:55, in the middle of a gorgeous summer workday, it was standing-room-only. Interested parties plugged laptops into outlets and blessed wireless networks.
Several items docketed for DRBC review were approved with little discussion. Only two or three members of the public addressed applications other than Docket #20 and with each DRBC decision, the audience shifted, taking deep calming breaths.
At 1:36 PM, the DRBC announced “that the public record on [DRAFT DOCKET D-2009-20-1] will remain open until Wednesday, July 29, 2009 to allow an additional opportunity for the public to submit written comments.” Some in the audience weren’t sure they’d heard correctly but it was official: no decision would be made on Docket #20 until after the extended public comment period passed.
Why had DRAFT DOCKET D-2009-20-1 roused residents of the Delaware River Basin to leave their farms and offices in the middle of a work week?
On May 19, 2009, according to the DRBC website, DRBC Executive Director Carol R. Collier announced that sponsors of natural gas extraction projects “could not begin any natural gas extraction project located in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s Special Protection Waters without first applying for and obtaining commission approval. This determination.. asserts commission review over all aspects of natural gas extraction projects in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s Special Protection Waters, regardless of the amount of water withdrawn or the capacity of domestic sewage treatment facilities accepting fracking wastewater.”
On May 22, 2009 Chesapeake Appalachia asked the DRBC “to review” its request to remove up to 30 million gallons of surface water from the West Branch of the Delaware River over a period of 30 days “to support Chesapeake’s
natural gas development and extraction activities…for natural gas wells drilled into the Marcellus Shale and other shale formations…for the applicant’s exploration and development of natural gas wells in the State of New York and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.”
Less than 40 working days later, the public was sitting in the DRBC Hearing Room.
Although the majority of speakers supported the Executive Director’s May 19, 2009 determination, several raised issues of agency jurisdiction and enforcement responsibility. Filmmaker, Josh Fox (Water Under Attack) asked a series of questions which, for the most part, went unanswered. “Who will be monitoring the wells and the trucks hauling the waste water? If that monitoring is a requirement of the application process, is there a body that will enforce the regulations? I’ve witnessed trucks dumping fluids. I have glass jars full of stuff that truckers were ordered to dump in the Susquehanna River.”
Most projections by both opponents and supporters of natural gas drilling anticipate tens of thousands of wells being drilled in the Basin. It’s clear that no federal or state agency has budgetary funds to monitor the majority of water withdrawals, their impact on the river or where the waste water is dumped and under what conditions. Mr. Fox summed up the sentiments of the majority of speakers, “They’re [natural gas drilling corporations] going to lawyer us to death. You’ll need a private army to enforce any regulations.”
Another opponent of hydraulic fracturing in the Basin asked that drilling companies test wells of any person living in the Basin both before and after drilling commences and not limit the testing to potable water. Yet another suggested that drilling companies pay for the water they use in their operations.
Specific to the amount of water being withdrawn, several speakers addressed water temperature, stressing that variations will endanger the Basin’s shad and trout populations.
Over the last decade, the Basin has sustained lengthy periods of drought that resulted in flash flooding when the rains finally arrived. “What will happen to the open pits of waste water during a flash flood?” one woman asked while someone else demanded, “Will drilling companies be required to stop withdrawals during a drought? Will they have the financial ability to stop the withdrawals?”
One member of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability (DCS) said after the Hearing, “We asked the DRBC to do an Environmental Impact Study (EIS) prior to considering any application for gas extraction activity in the basin. DCS attorney Jeffrey Zimmerman spoke and had previously submitted a detailed letter to the Commissioners. We believe there are legal grounds for requiring this EIS.”
The DCS has also posted a “Help Save the Delaware from Gas Drilling revised petition at its website and is asking the public to continue submitting statements to the DRBC.
Comprehensive oversight and enforcement by the DRBC is constrained by The Delaware River Basin Compact and a US Supreme Court Decree (Section 3.5 (c)) which apparently gives de facto veto power to the Compact’s signatories: The President of The United States and the Governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania.
That’s where confusion and mixed intent reign.
Politically-speaking, State Governors are often the first to be voted out of office when the national economy tanks. Governor Rendell of Pennsylvania lifted the ban on drilling in State forests and called natural gas drilling of the Marcellus Shale a potential Gold Rush while saying significant problems caused by early exploration must be balanced with its benefits. His Department of Environmental Protection appointee, John Hanger, provided more insight as to the Commonwealth’s position on hydraulic fracturing and natural gas drilling, “… some of the chemicals could be dangerous to human health but the risk has to be weighed against the benefits that will come from the exploitation of…the ‘enormous’ gas reserves contained in the Marcellus Shale.” Although “he pledged that officials would respond diligently to any complaints about polluted water resulting from the drilling,” he was unable to “confirm or deny reports that water in the northeast Pennsylvania township of Dimock — where many producing wells are located — is being contaminated by chemicals…”
To add further confusion, DRBC’s rules and regulations state, “The Commission will rely on signatory party reviews as much as possible” which may be one of the points Governor Rendell intends to press.
Proponents of natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing repeated their assertions that new drilling methods and chemicals are safe, though none cited to any independent scientific studies. Noel Van Swol of Fremont alluded to DCS and their ilk as “dilettantes.” He further stated, “Seventy thousand acres are ready to be leased in New York from Hancock to Port Jervis. The towns are dying. Anti-drilling presentations falsely assume that water withdrawals from the Delaware are not renewable,” and claimed rainfall would replenish the water taken by drilling companies.
Our world’s water supply is a closed system. Despite Mr. Van Swol’s assertions, rainfall cannot “replenish” that closed system. It’s merely one inherent part of it.
The next business meeting and public hearing of the Delaware River Basin Commission will be on Wednesday, September 23, 2009.