Vanessa Baker of Philadelphia’s Port Richmond neighborhood learned through social media about a meeting Thursday afternoon on a plan to ban natural gas drilling in the Delaware River watershed, and knew she couldn’t miss it.
“I’ve been interested in water conservation for along time,” said Baker, 37.
She was among about 120 people who turned out to spend hours debating a proposal to ban the drilling and hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, within the watershed, which supplies more than 15 million people with drinking water. About 70 people spoke over more than three hours.
The ban was proposed last fall by the Delaware River Basin Commission and would make permanent a moratorium in place since 2010.
The rules would also apply to how wastewater from drilling outside the basin is stored, treated, and managed within the basin. The proposal was met with optimism and some skepticism by environmentalists, who fear loopholes would allow wastewater they say contains harmful chemicals to be dumped into the Delaware River.
The DRBC is an interstate agency that manages the Delaware River watershed; its members include the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and New York.
But the rules could have the most acute impact in the Marcellus Shale region, including Wayne and Pike Counties in Northeastern Pennsylvania. Natural gas production is an economic driver there.
Interest has been so high for and against the ban that the DRBC scheduled four public meetings this week: two in Waymart and two in Philadelphia. The last is Friday. The agency is also holding additional meetings in February and March.
Public comment on the new rules closes March 30. The DRBC isn’t expected to make a final decision until later this year or early next year.
“What could be more shortsighted, destructive, and out of touch with reality than destroying not only our own drinking water, but that of generations to come?” Baker said at the meeting.
But Jonathan Lutz, speaking for the American Petroleum Institute, said the natural gas production industry in Pennsylvania supports 320,000 jobs directly and indirectly that pay $23 billion in wages.
He said the industry supports regulation and wants environmental safety protections based on “sound science.” But he questioned the interpretation of two studies cited by the DRBC regarding water quality.
“While opponents of energy production argue that well stimulation will pollute our water resources, the science clearly indicates otherwise,” Lutz said.
He said that one of the studies by the EPA did “not result in any significant correlations between hydraulic fracturing and impaired water resources. In fact, that study indicates that hydraulic fracturing activities have not led to widespread systemic impacts.”
The Marcellus Shale Coalition, which represents 200 producers, transmitters, and others involved in the industry, was not represented at Thursday’s meeting but has also opposed the ban.
Patrick Henderson, director of regulatory affairs for the coalition, appeared at an earlier meeting this week saying the ban “defies common sense, sound science, responsible policy-making, and the corporate charter and authority of the commission. It is simply wrong, not authorized, and this rule-making ought not be adopted.”
On Thursday, a coalition of 10 environmental groups dominated. The groups held a news conference before the meeting saying they were united in favor of the ban and opposed to allowing wastewater produced by fracking to be discharged anywhere in the watershed, or exporting it anywhere else for discharge.
David Kinney of Trout Unlimited showed up to support the ban, and cautioned the DRBC about how it would handle wastewater.
One local official expressed concern that water treatment plants are already overburdened and can’t process fracking wastewater.
State Rep. Greg Vitali, a Democrat from Delaware County, offered sentiments echoed by many other speakers.
“To date, about 11,000 unconventional wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania,” Vitali said, “but there should be places where fracking does not occur, and the Delaware River basin is one of them.”