Growing doubts about the safety of high-pressure drilling for natural gas should persuade the Delaware River Basin Commission to extend its drilling ban.
The DRBC doesn’t get much attention, but it has an important job protecting the quality of drinking water for 15 million people. The four-state watershed it monitors — parts of Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware — provides water for all of the Philadelphia region, much of South Jersey, and half of New York City.
The agency is accepting public comment until April 15 on its proposal to allow gas companies to begin hydraulic-facture drilling, or fracking, in northeastern Pennsylvania. Those counties near the upper reaches of the Delaware sit atop the Marcellus Shale formation and its vast deposits of gas.
In northern and western Pennsylvania, the drilling boom is in full swing. Drilling companies were issued more than 3,300 permits last year. The DRBC expects eventually there could be 18,000 wells drilled in its jurisdiction. The agency’s proposed rules for drilling are generally tougher than Pennsylvania’s regulations.
Landowners in northeastern Pennsylvania who would benefit from lease payments and royalties want drilling to begin there.
But as fracking has expanded rapidly over the past two years, more questions are being raised about its impact on the environment and on public health. There is growing evidence that the state’s infrastructure cannot cleanse the polluted wastewater that is a byproduct of fracking.
Millions of gallons of water, salt, and chemicals from drilling wells must be treated before it is returned to rivers and streams. But in western Pennsylvania, public-water suppliers are finding an increase in salty bromides. Some suppliers are in violation of federal drinking-water standards.
Bromides can form chemical compounds that cause cancers and birth defects. Two suspected sources of bromides are drilling wastewater and wastewater from pollution-control scrubbers at coal-fired power plants.
The gas industry disputes that Marcellus drilling is causing the problem. But concerns also have been raised about water-treatment plants being unable to filter out radioactive materials from the drilling wastewater.
State regulators also have dealt with several instances of methane contamination of well water near Marcellus drilling sites and spills of fracturing fluid.
Public health concerns led New York to impose a moratorium on Marcellus drilling in that state. The U.S Environmental Protection Agency is conducting its first study of how hydraulic fracturing may affect public drinking water.
It would be illogical for the DRBC to lift its moratorium before the results of the EPA study are known. There should also be a review of the impact in this watershed. The most sensible course for the 15 million people who depend on clean drinking water in the Delaware River watershed is for the DRBC to extend its ban on drilling for now.