Foundation wants feds to take closer look at drilling in watershed


SUNBURY – If Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection inspectors can’t cite gas-drilling companies for violations, maybe the federal government can.

A petition filed April 4 and signed by more than 120 businesses, groups and elected officials asks federal Environmental Protection Agency officials to take a closer look at how Marcellus Shale drilling is affecting the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

The bay’s drainage basin covers 64,299 square miles in the District of Columbia and parts of six states: New York, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia. More than 150 rivers and streams drain into the bay.

Matt Ehrhart, executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s Pennsylvania office, said in a statement that his group recognizes the value of the natural gas being taken out of the shale by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, but he filed the petition because of concerns about the thousands of drilling pads that are up and running in the bay’s watershed states.

Ehrhart recently was named to Corbett’s newly formed Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, a 30-member panel that is to oversee how to grow the natural-gas industry while protecting the environment and drinking water and fostering a new workforce.

“The four- to six-acre drilling pads plus access roads, thousands of truck-traffic trips for fracking water, development and implementation of pipeline infrastructure — all these have impacts, locally and regionally,” Ehrhart said in a statement Wednesday.

He also said fracking effects may not be limited to the time drilling takes place. “Fracking water that remains in the well bore has been the subject of much uncertainty and concern,” he said. “We believe that the citizens of the region have the right to an unbiased assessment of these risks and the potential damage to groundwater.”

Ehrhart discounted claims that fracking has no real impact on the Chesapeake Bay.

“We’ve asked for the collection of information because there’s a lot of unknowns, moving fracking water and waste water around,” Ehrhart said. “Certainly, the questions are there, and certainly, the magnitude of the activities indicate that there is a linkage.”

The petition comes under the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires the federal government to ensure drilling won’t adversely affect human health or the environment. Other groups that signed it include the National Parks Conservation Association, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment and the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds.

The Harrisburg Patriot-News reported April 2 that while communities and farmers are under mandates to reduce pollutants going into the bay, by-products of drilling also make their way into the water but are not accounted for.

“Do you think that’s fair? I don’t,” said an angry Snyder County farmer, Tom Shilling, whose land abuts a stream that runs into the Susquehanna River.

“We’re being asked to meet all kinds of runoff standards,” he said. “And I don’t mind doing that. I’m not one to want to pollute in any way, you understand. But when I heard about the gas companies not being held to the same standard, it just makes me angry. And I’m not the only one.”

Over-regulation has been taken up as a cause by the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, based in Camp Hill.

“Farmers are being challenged by an onslaught of regulations and other requirements being issued by the Environmental Protection Agency,” Pennsylvania Farm Bureau President Carl Shaffer said.

Shaffer said that nowhere is the impact of EPA activity more obvious than in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, where EPA’s recently finalized Total Maximum Daily Load guidelines could push hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland out of production.

“EPA,” he said, “projects that roughly 20 percent of cropped land in the watershed (about 600,000 acres) will have to be removed from production and be converted to grassland or forest in order to achieve the required loading reductions.”

“We’ve cooperated with EPA,” he continued. “No-till farming has reduced soil erosion and resulted in more carbon being stored in the soil. Milk today is produced from far fewer cows. Nitrogen use efficiency has consistently improved. Farmers are proud that their environmental footprint is dramatically smaller today than it was 50 years ago, and we are committed to continuing this progress.”

Shaffer, a Columbia County green bean, corn and wheat farmer, said agriculture’s success in reducing nutrients in the Chesapeake Bay is well documented, but the EPA has ignored the substantial effort and progress of recent years.

In the last two years, EPA has set in motion a significant number of new regulations that will fundamentally alter the face of agriculture, not just in the bay, but nationwide, Shaffer said. These new regulations will determine how farmers raise crops and livestock and will increase the likelihood of lawsuits filed by activist organizations.

The Pennsylvania Farm Bureau recently filed suit challenging the EPA’s authority to implement its Total Maximum Daily Load measure in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed.

“I agree with that move completely,” Shilling said.

Meanwhile, Marcellus Shale drilling continues. It is most prevalent in Pennsylvania, where Gov. Tom Corbett recently passed a policy stating that DEP Secretary Michael Krancer and two other agency officials must sign off on all DEP actions and notice of violations against natural-gas companies.

Numerous environmental groups and officials have decried Corbett’s policy, saying it hamstrings DEP inspectors and favors the gas industry, allowing the drillers to be sloppy and careless with no immediate repercussion.

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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