HARRISBURG - A leading environmental group has written to the National Park Service alleging that Pennsylvania is violating federal law by allowing natural gas drilling activity on protected state lands.
The Sierra Club says the state should halt all drilling and permitting in state parks and forests until it complies with review requirements under a federal law that dates to the mid-1960s, the Land and Water Conservation Act.
"Our attorneys have reviewed documentation provided by the state and come to the conclusion that it is not complying with the Land and Water Act," said Jeff Schmidt, executive director of the Sierra Club's Pennsylvania chapter. "We are asking the state to halt its activities and the National Park Service to conduct a review."
The Land and Water Conservation Act requires states that receive federal funds through the park service in order to buy property for recreation to carefully scrutinize any proposed activity that could disturb the land. Pennsylvania has received $162 million in such funds, including $1.2 million last year, the park service said.
The agency said Wednesday that it would determine if parklands referenced in the Sierra Club's letter were purchased in whole or in part using Conservation Act funds.
"When you accept that money, there is a string attached - that the parkland acquired must remain open for recreational purposes in perpetuity," said Phil Sheridan, Philadelphia-based regional spokesman for the Park Service.
If the lands were bought with federal funds, the agency would seek more detail from state officials to determine if the lands were being appropriately used, he said.
The Sierra Club contends that the state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources (DCNR) and the Department of Environmental Protection are not adequately analyzing natural gas drilling permits - which are growing in number in the Marcellus Shale region.
DCNR spokeswoman Chris Novak said the department was reviewing the Sierra Club's allegations and would make a definitive statement once the review was complete.
Novak stressed that there currently was no Marcellus Shale-related drilling on the 295,000 acres of state parks, which have traditionally been set aside for public recreation.
A less-protected category of Pennsylvania land is state forests. Almost 700,000 acres of the 2.1 million acres of those lands are leased for natural gas drilling; state forests have historically been open to industries such as timbering and mineral extraction. Last year, Gov. Ed Rendell issued a moratorium on new drilling permits in state forests, which his successor, Gov. Corbett, has said he will lift.
The Sierra Club's Schmidt said the potential for environmental damage to state-owned land would only increase with expansion of drilling in the Marcellus Shale region, which includes 61 of the 117 state parks.
Private owners control 80 percent of mineral rights under state park land and can lease access. That is why, for example, drilling-related seismic testing has been conducted at one of the state's premier recreation areas - Ohiopyle State Park in southwestern Pennsylvania, home to some of the best whitewater rafting in the East.
"There likely will be drilling in state parks in the near future," said John Quigley, former DCNR secretary under Rendell and now a conservation consultant. "It will be a jarring experience, but when it happens you'll want to have the highest level of protection."
Quigley said he thought the Sierra Club's charge of "recklessness" on the part of the drilling industry was exaggerated. "At this point I don't think it's out of control," he said.
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