Water worries intensify


Water worries intensify

Officials vow to protect a ‘precious resource’


UPPER DELAWARE VALLEY — As the number of water contamination incidents related to the process of natural gas extraction increases across the country, so do attempts to regulate such impacts. A growing number of officials, agencies and organizations are calling for more protections of the nation’s water supply and implementing new regulations to mitigate those risks.

Several significant developments involving the Upper Delaware River region, where the Marcellus Shale play has prompted a rush of natural gas extraction activity, have occurred recently.

EPA confirms need for policy review

During a House Appropriations Subcommittee on Interior hearing on May 19, Congressman Maurice Hinchey (D-NY) elicited confirmation from U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson that the EPA should conduct a review of its policy on the risk that hydraulic fracturing poses to drinking water supplies.

Jackson reportedly told Hinchey that she believed her agency should review the risk that fracturing poses to drinking water in light of various cases across the country that raise questions about the safety of those activities.

Hinchey, who voted against the Energy Policy Act of 2005, has been working to close a legal loophole that exempts hydraulic fracturing for oil and natural gas exploration and drilling from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA), which was designed to protect water supplies from contamination with toxic materials.

“It’s imperative that we protect our drinking water supplies from harmful chemicals that are being pumped into the ground by oil and gas companies looking to produce in New York and across the country,” Hinchey said. “I was extremely pleased that EPA administrator Jackson recognized the need for the EPA to reexamine the Bush administration’s misguided views on the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing. While there is value in drilling for natural gas, it’s imperative that we do so in a manner that doesn’t have long-term environmental consequences on our drinking water.”

According to Hinchey, more than 1,000 cases of contamination have been documented by courts and state and local governments in New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, Texas, Pennsylvania and Colorado. In one case, a house exploded after hydraulic fracturing created underground passageways and methane seeped into the residential water supply.

A 2004 EPA study that has since come into question concluded that fracturing did not pose a risk to drinking water. Hinchey notes that the more than 1,000 reported contamination incidents have cast significant doubt on the report’s findings and the report’s own body contains damaging information that wasn’t mentioned in its conclusion. The study foreshadowed many of the problems now being reported across the country.

DRBC draws the line

Also on May 19, the Delaware River Basin Commission’s (DRBC) Executive Director Carol Collier announced toughened restrictions that eliminate review thresholds for gas extraction projects within the Delaware basin’s Special Protection Waters (SPW).

The agency regulates water resources in the states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware. “The bottom line for the DRBC is to ensure that proper environmental controls are provided to safeguard our basin’s water resources that are used by nearly 15 million people,” said Collier.

Collier has issued a determination notifying project sponsors that they may not commence any natural gas extraction project located in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s SPW without first applying for and obtaining DRBC approval.

The determination is in place on an interim basis, and applies regardless of the amount of water withdrawn or the capacity of domestic sewage treatment facilities accepting fracking wastewater, said Collier. “The commissioners intend to adopt regulations pertaining to the subject matter contained in this determination after public notice and a full opportunity for public comment, but this rulemaking process can be lengthy. In the meantime, DRBC will apply this determination in combination with its existing regulations,” she said.

The action is based on a consideration of the individual or cumulative effects of water withdrawals, wastewater disposal and more, and the potential alteration of physical, biological, chemical or hydrological characteristics of Special Protection Waters.

Collier noted the intent of the measure is not to “put up roadblocks,” but to provide more direction to the process. “Each of these activities, if not properly performed, may cause adverse environmental effects on water resources.”

The commission’s Special Protection Waters (SPW) program is designed to prevent degradation in streams and rivers considered to have exceptionally high scenic, recreational, ecological, and/or water supply values through stricter control of wastewater discharges, non-point pollution control and reporting requirements.

Most of the shale formations that may be subject to new horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing techniques requiring large volumes of water in the basin are located within the SPW drainage area, which includes the 197-mile non-tidal Delaware River from Hancock, NY south to Trenton, NJ and the land draining to this stretch.

Under this determination, a natural gas extraction project encompasses the drilling pad upon which a well intended for eventual production is located, all accompanying facilities and related activities, and all locations of water withdrawals used or to be used to supply water to the project. Exploratory wells that are not used for production or fracking are not covered by the determination, though they are subject to state regulation.

Projects are also subject to state, and in some cases federal, agency review. The commission intends to coordinate with and to utilize the review process and approvals of the applicable state or federal agency to minimize duplication.

Any person adversely affected by the determination may request a hearing by writing to the commission secretary within 30 days of the date of the determination in accordance with the DRBC’s Rules of Practice and Procedure. Additional information, including the complete determination, can be found on the commission’s website at http://www.state.nj.us/drbc/basin/

Delaware Riverkeeper Maya van Rossum of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network (DRN) calls the DRBC determination “the right decision at the right time,” and is urging the public to contact their congressional representatives to require that natural gas companies follow clean water laws.

The organization posits that environmental damage and health risks are already being experienced as a result of natural gas drilling in Pennsylvania, and notes, “Hydraulic fracturing fluids often contain highly toxic chemicals, some of which remain underground. Fracturing is highly variable and unpredictable, and can lead to unintended consequences, such as contamination of drinking water. The right balance needs to be established between oil and gas development and our precious resource of water. The current exemption in federal law only benefits gas and oil companies at the expense of the health and safety of our communities. We need federal standards to prohibit endangerment of our drinking water and protect its purity.” Visit www.delawareriverkeeper.org for more information.

Other recent initiatives include the passage of resolutions by eight New York City community boards calling for a ban on natural gas drilling throughout the state to protect drinking water. Joe Levine, co-founder and chair of NYH2O and co-founder of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, said the DRBC determination is a “game-changing” move.

“It’s a watershed moment, and possibly the first such declaration in the nation,” said Levine. “Full DRBC review can’t mean much less than an environmental review that considers cumulative impact, which we’ve been asking for all along. Combined with Jackson’s admission that the EPA’s policies on this should be reviewed, it’s a spectacular development. While we’re cautiously optimistic, we may start to see the dominoes fall now.”