River basin forum: Fracking and other big challenges ahead

Is natural gas drilling the elephant in the room when it comes to the Delaware River Basin? Or the gorilla?

Both terms were put into play earlier today at a river basin forum held in Philadelphia and zapped live to five additional locations around the basin. Some 400 people in four states attended or tuned in.

Either way, the drilling question is big.

With the exception of a few exploratory wells, drilling has not yet reached the basin. The Delaware River Basin Commission, an interstate agency formed by a federal compact, has declared a moratorium until it had regulations in place. These have been proposed, and the public comment period lasts until April 15.

The proposed regulations are intended to to make sure that the environmental impacts on the basin are held in check – from runoff problems to accidents, from issues of contaminated wastewater to how to provide the millions of gallons of water needed to “fracture” each well to free the gas.

“We need to be sure that we have strict regulations, and that those regulations are enforced,” said Kathy L. Pape, president of Pennsylvania American Water. “Otherwise, our company and our customers will end up paying and assuming the financial risk to ensure that it’s done at the end of the day.”

The forum addressed many issues related to drinking water, but many of those are already better known. Climate change promises to bring a plethora of problems, from both droughts and heavier participation to sea level rise to warmer temperatures.

Land use needs to be addressed, many of the presenters said. And pollution. And equitable use of the resources. Everyone has a straw in the river, from thermoelectric plants that use massive quantities for cooling – the largest use in the basin – to the little kid who wants a sip of water and a bath.

“So put on your seat belts; here we go,” said Carol Collier, executive director of the basin commission.

It is natural gas drilling that, as the presenters said, is the elephant – or gorilla – in the room. Collier noted that the Marcellus shale formation, which has rich deposts of natural gas, underlies 36 percent of the basin, but 100 percent of its headwaters, the most sensitive area of a watershed. Here is where the water quality begins and, if pollution happens, ends.

Collier said the commission has received 3,000 comments so far on its proposed regulations. Given the volume and the time needed to respond, she does not expect the commission to take any action until the fall.

The lunch speaker was Jeffrey K. Griffiths, a physician and expert on waterborne disease at the Tufts University School of Medicine. He’s also on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency panel assessing the health effects of natural gas drilling.

As such, he said, he could not give personal opinions or comments. But he said concerns included air pollution and chemicals in the wastewater from drilling sites.

He said officials recently learned that at least one company is adding diesel to the water it uses to frack wells. In almost humorous plainspeak, he noted, “Diesel fuel is bad. I can tell you that if you drink diesel fuel, it’s bad. It’s carcinogenic.”

The basin itself is gigantic and complex _ 330 miles of river, plus 42 counties and more than 800 municipalities. More than 15 million people – about five percent of the nation’s population – relying on the basin for drinking water and other water uses, such as agriculture and industry.

The forum was sponsored by the Source Water Collaborative, a coalition of 23 national organizations and agencies whose goal is to protect sources of drinking water.

For more information on the forum, go to www.delawarebasindrinkingwater.org