Saturday, December 31, 2011

EPA Reopens Dimock Water Investigation

In an about-face, officials from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) returned to Dimock, PA for another look at water wells contaminated three years ago by Cabot Oil and Gas activities. They are reopening their review of town water supplies after recent tests revealed issues that they say “merit further investigation”.

This is a 180-degree turn for EPA. At the beginning of the month they sent a letter to residents stating that the information they had gathered “does not indicate that the well water presents an immediate health threat to users.”

But now, they say, critical data gaps have emerged in water sampling and test results. They are also concerned that residents have alternative sources of fresh water.

Tests from the drinking water wells taken in early fall showed elevated levels of metals, bis(2-ethylhexyl) phthalate, glycols, surfactants, and 2-methoxyethanol. So now EPA wants to investigate further – an action that the industry group Energy in Depth has criticized as “overstepping [the EPA’s] regulatory authority.”

You can read more about this in prize-winning journalist Laura Legere's article here.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

SRBC Approvals, Procedure Questioned

Last week (Thursday, Dec. 15) the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) held its quarterly business meeting in Wilkes-Barre, PA. Read the official press release (link) and it looks like business as usual: “SRBC concluded all scheduled actions including voting on water withdrawal and consumptive use applications…”

However, read press accounts and it’s pretty clear that the meeting was anything but. Several people disrupted the meeting with mic checks and questions about just who the water belongs to. In the noise and confusion SRBC chair Kelly Heffner tried to maintain control, but failed.

According to one reporter the meeting was “… interrupted by protesters, and SRBC commissioners completed their voting in private."

Another reported that Heffner threatened to clear the room and the commission hastily adopted the recommendations and adjourned the meeting early.

Some people who attended that meeting contend that the SRBC chair adjourned the meeting when the disruptions occurred. Commissioners filed out of the room, then returned a few minutes later to vote on the items.
SRBC 12/15/11 Wilkes Barre -- Meeting Adjourned Before the Vote from Shaleshock Media on Vimeo.

It’s pretty hard to make out what’s happening because of the chaos, but someone had a recorder running during that meeting – a Tascam DR-07 sitting on top of a speaker cabinet about 10 feet from the table where the commissioners were seated. In this excerpt you can hear Heffner saying “Adjourn! Adjourn! Clear the room.”

But, says SRBC spokesperson Susan Obleski, the meeting was not officially adjourned at that time. In a telephone conversation earlier today, Obleski admitted that, yes, Heffner did indeed say “adjourn”.

However, that call was out of order. “When the commissioners stepped out of the room, they were advised by SRBC counsel that the meeting was still in session,” Obleski said. “The meeting was never officially adjourned.”  So when the commissioners returned, they didn’t need to reconvene, as they were still in session. They just had to bring up the docket for a vote. “Which,” Obleski said, “they did according to Commission procedures” prior to officially adjourning the meeting.

While there are some questions about how the meeting was conducted, Obleski is firm that as far as approving the dockets goes, SRBC is on solid legal ground. They conducted that portion correctly, she said. As for Heffner’s call to adjourn – that was in response to people crowding up against the commissioners. Obleski noted that the SRBC is reviewing video and audio recordings and should have a public statement soon. “But the dockets stand approved,” she emphasized.

“SRBC meetings often don’t generate much public turnout,” says Nadia Steinzor, the Marcellus Shale regional organizer for Earthworks. The oppositional turnout last week should, at the very least, make the SRBC aware of the strong views of the public.  “Gas development is so controversial because of its many negative impacts, in particular to water resources. The SRBC must uphold comment periods and manage meetings so that the public can openly and respectfully share their views and knowledge—which will hopefully in turn encourage the Commissioners to make decisions that truly protect the Basin.”

Thomas Au, Conservation Chair for Sierra Club PA agrees and called for the SRBC to reconvene to consider the docket they so hastily dealt with on the 15th.  “Commission decisions need to be made in an open, public forum,” he said.

Yesterday Steinzor and Au signed on with five other environmental organizations in a letter to the SRBC that asks the Commissioners to reconvene for the purposes of completing its meeting held on December 15. The letter states that when the disruptive behavior made the proceedings unintelligible, and the Commission chair failed to control the meeting, she adjourned it.  “… some attendees in the audience left the meeting at that point. The Commissioners and Commission staff then excused themselves only to return minutes later where they voted and approved 22 of the projects at issue, off-the-record and without having formally reconvened. None of the remaining individuals wishing to provide public comment were able to exercise that right.”

Steinzor and the six other signatories have reviewed the videos and listened to reports from people who attended the meeting. Whether legally adjourned by Roberts Rules or other rules, for all intents and purposes it appears that SRBC did indeed adjourn prior to voting on the water withdrawal projects, they say. “Because the majority of the proposed water withdrawals concerned shale gas operations that entail potentially significant direct, indirect and cumulative impacts, those approvals demand the utmost transparency and accountability.”

Binghamton Passes Fracking Ban

Last night, by a vote of 6 to 1 the Binghamton (NY) City council approved a two-year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing within city limits. According to the press, more than 100 people crowded into the council chambers to witness this three-hour meeting. Sixty-eight people commented on the proposed ban.

Meanwhile, the Tompkins County legislature has approved a resolution urging NY to ban high-volume hydrofracking statewide. That resolution passed in a 14 to 1 vote.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A Taxing Question...

In an email to the local press yesterday, Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) spokeswoman Emily DeSantis remarked on the agency’s need for additional funds for regulating hydraulic fracturing and gas drilling. Apparently those funds “will not be included in the executive budget” – the budget Gov. Andrew Cuomo will propose around mid-January.

That’s about the same time that DEC should be getting down to the business of reading through the thousands of public comments regarding the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS). And the proposed regulations for high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing.

Wayne Bayer, a DEC engineer who is shop steward for the Public Employees Federation union, said the agency is understaffed and its employees are concerned about adding a new regulatory program like hydrofracking.

At this point the DEC estimates it will need 140 new workers for the first year permits are issued and 226 by the fifth. Add salaries to the cost of needed equipment and you’re looking at an additional $20 million a year.

Where will that money come from? Right now DEC has convened a panel of outside experts to develop a list of fees and taxes that could be levied on drillers to cover the costs. That panel should be issuing a report “sometime in the first part of next year,” says DeSantis.

But it’s going to be tough to sell the need for additional staff when Cuomo has already required all state agencies to cut 10 percent from their budgets for the current fiscal year, and is looking for an additional 2.5 percent cut for 2012-13.

What to do? Ask the industry to pay for the services it uses. Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York (IOGA-NY), is confident the money will come into the state once DEC gives drillers a green light. “We support more DEC staff,” he told the press. Once drilling starts there should be enough revenue through permitting and other fees to “more than pay for that staff.”

Friday, December 16, 2011

What Fracking Sounds Like

One of the things that residents in NY have been asking their towns to do before Marcellus drilling takes off is develop some noise and light ordinances. In fact, Tioga Investigates Natural Gas (TING), an advisory group in Tioga County, NY includes information on developing such ordinances in their resource binder (along with road agreements and lots of other useful stuff).

If you have never seen - or heard or smelled - fracking, here's a video of  a fracking operation by Williams Gas Company at the Hollenbeck well site on Franklin Forks Rd., Franklin Forks, PA in Susquehanna County. The video was recorded on December 15 - just yesterday - at 6:30 pm. The active drilling site is across the road from a home; pay attention to the truck traffic.

Much thanks to Vera Scroggins, Citizens for Clean Water (Susquehanna County, PA)for the video.
If for some reason the video below doesn't work, here's the link:

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

DEC Environmental Engineer says Fracking WILL Pollute Water

Paul Hetzler, an environmental engineering technician with NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Region 5 says hydraulic fracturing – as it’s practiced today – will contaminate our aquifers. Not might. Will.

In  a letter to the Watertown Daily Times Hetzler criticizes current technology. “If you were looking for a way to poison the drinking water supply, here in the Northeast you couldn’t find a more chillingly effective and thorough method of doing so than with hydraulic fracturing,” he writes. “There’s no such thing as a perfect well seal. Occasionally sooner, often later, well seals can and do fail, period.”

And that failure, when it happens, will be expensive. Everyone, regardless of whether they are receiving royalties or living miles away, will end up paying for the subsurface investigations, whole-house filtration systems and unending lab analyses as industry lawyers tie up complaints in courts.

“I’d love to see hundreds more jobs created,” Hetzler writes. “But not if it means hundreds of thousands using well water will be at a high risk of contamination.” The solution? Develop safe technologies before drilling.

Hetzler isn’t the only DEC staffer to speak out against the agency’s current – and proposed – fracking regulations. At the November 30 DEC hearing in New York City Stephanie Low read a statement from DEC employee Wayne Bayer. Bayer is an Environmental Program Specialist and Executive Board member of the DE’'s union, the Public Employees Federation (PEF). He speaks for the 1774 members of the professional, technical and scientific staff of the DEC – those on the ground, he says, who know the issues of fracking and the draft SGEIS best.

“The 25 percent  reduction in existing staff at DEC has crippled our ability to carry out all existing regulatory and statutory responsibilities assigned to our agency,” Bayer states. “There is no fracking way we can presently, honestly and adequately add any new responsibility as labor-intensive as regulating, monitoring and inspection activities related to high volume hydraulic fracturing of natural gas.” Until DEC can hire adequate staff … “the moratorium should be extended.” You can hear the entire statement here.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Judge to Dimock: No Soup for You

Last Friday Pennsylvania Environmental Hearing Board Judge Bernard Labuskes Jr. told the Carter Road residents that they would not see future water deliveries. At least not until they have allowed Cabot Oil & Gas to install “whole-house gas mitigation” systems for their wells.

When the water shipments were canceled twelve days ago, the 11 families depending on delivered water appealed to the PA Environmental Hearing Board. They argue that the state is wrong in ignoring the harm that could come from drinking contaminated water. It’s more than methane, say the Carter road residents. Their water contains metals and volatile organic compounds including solvents and manufactured chemicals at levels higher than state and federal standards.

Of course, Cabot and the PA Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) submitted their own arguments, noting that the Environmental Hearing board doesn’t have the authority to force the driller to continue deliveries of drinking water. Nor does it have the authority to order DEP to take enforcement action.

So where does that leave the Carter road folks? With empty water tanks. Because, as some of them have told the press, the treatment system Cabot is offering only targets methane, not the other toxic contaminants. And what they want – despite the political bickering and nasty comments from the “Enough Already” crown – is their water back. They want good, clean water to drink – or make soup. Not a wad of cash.