Delaware River Basin Commission: Postpones 30,000,000 Gallon Withdrawal from Delaware River


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shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s Special Protection Waters, regardless of the amount of water withdrawn or the capacity of domestic sewage treatment facilities accepting fracking wastewater.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.

2 thoughts on “Delaware River Basin Commission: Postpones 30,000,000 Gallon Withdrawal from Delaware River

  1. Jim Barth

    This is a broad, well rounded report that goes beyond the scope of the meeting in Bethlehem, which I attended and made a statement. Thank you.

    I’d like to point out that people may infer from your writing that Docket # 2009-20-1 is only an approval for the removal from the Cutrone site, West Branch Delaware River, of 30 million gallons of fresh water TOTAL, when it allows up to just below 1mg per day/per 30 day period (up to 30mg over each 30 day period) for TEN YEARS. This permit would be renewable.

    As an example, if Chesapeake applies for, and receives permission to site 10 well pads, with four horizontal wells drilled to each pad, and if, according to the Docket, 90% of the water withdrawal is dedicated to hydraulic fracturing, with 10% going for other needs, and if as the Docket allocates, up to 8mg is used per fracture, then the permissable water withdrawal would amount to 40 wells x 8mg + approx. 10%, or 352 million gallons of water, to be withdrawn at the rate I mentioned earlier. In effect, Chesapeake would then be allowed to withdraw up to 1mg per day for a continuous period of almost one year.

    The permit allows the site to operate on a 24 HOUR BASIS, DAY IN AND DAY OUT. Therefore, just for the 10 well pads with 40 wells, Chesapeake would be allowed to submit all people residing in the immediate area (and beyond), to the constant sound of a pump intake at 1,100 gallons per minute over the course of 16.67 hours per day (the fastest amount of time it would take to remove the 1mg per day). It would also take 200 water trucks @ 5,000 gallons each, to arrive empty, fill up, and depart full, in order to remove the 1mg per day. This is an average of one truck entering or leaving the premises every 3.6 minutes over every 24 hours, for the one year period. Trucks would enter or leave the site onto the Hancock Highway portion of Rt. 191 at a spot that would create more than a nuisance, it could easily create a roadblock. It would be an accident waiting to happen. There are so many other reasons, many of them far more important than what I just wrote, why this Docket approval was delayed, as hundreds of letters sent, and 50 or so statements made at the meeting to that effect, made clear to the Commissioners of the DRBC.

    The Cutrone site is a terrible location. It reflects the lack of design planning, the disregard for safety, and the absolute amateurishness of the company (read the Docket and see the infrastructure that is proposed), known as Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC.

    The Cutrone water withdrawal site should be rejected by the DRBC, period.

  2. lizbucar Post author

    Thank you, thank you, James for this lucid explanation. I am in awe of the depth & breadth of knowledge you and other members of Damascus Citizens bring to this discussion!

    Small note to people who’d like to leave a comment. It’s difficult to see how to do it on this page but there’s a hard-to-see clickable link (“comment”) nested in the small print beneath the original post.

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