Monday, January 10, 2011

Safe Water: Pennsylvanians Deserve Tough Oversight on Drilling

Monday, January 10, 2011
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Just before Pennsylvania gets a new governor, a disturbing report by The Associated Press suggests that now would be the wrong time to ease up on state regulation and oversight of Marcellus Shale gas drilling.

According to the AP, the state has had difficulty controlling, tracking and minimizing wastewater discharges produced by the drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The report published in the Post-Gazette last Tuesday said wastewater from fracking is only partially treated for substances that could be environmentally harmful before some of the fluid is dumped into rivers and streams from which Pennsylvanians draw their drinking water.

While most states require drillers to dispose of the liquid by injecting it into shafts thousands of feet deep, the story said Pennsylvania is the only one that lets waterways "serve as the primary disposal place" for frack solution. State records show that during the 12 months ending June 30 more than 3.6 million barrels of the liquid went to treatment plants that empty into rivers. The AP said the state, however, couldn't account for the disposal method for 1.28 million barrels.

Researchers are still trying to determine if such discharges into waterways, at present levels, could cause serious environmental harm. Industry experts say the wastewater is safely diluted when it enters the state's big rivers. Even so, the AP reported, the 10 biggest drillers in Pennsylvania -- which account for 80 percent of the liquid -- have either stopped discharging into waterways or have cut back drastically on the practice. Pennsylvanians should be glad for that.

John Hanger, secretary of the state Department of Environmental Protection, reacted strongly to the article and resented any implication that Pennsylvania's water supply was in jeopardy. He has worked during his time in the Rendell administration for tougher regulations on the industry, more staff to monitor compliance and more funding for adequate oversight.

But Tom Corbett, who has been much friendlier to the Marcellus Shale drilling industry than Ed Rendell, will be inaugurated as governor on Jan. 18. Mr. Corbett was the big recipient in political contributions from drillers in the 2010 governor's race and he named to his transition team a CEO from a drilling company that donated $125,000 to his campaign. He also has opposed consideration of a severance tax on drilling, a common source of revenue in other states that have deep shale operations.

Add the concerns raised by The Associated Press story to those that deserve greater vigilance by state regulators. The jobs and economic activity from drilling are welcome, but Pennsylvanians have a fundamental right to safe drinking water and an environment unspoiled by new hazards.

First published on January 10, 2011 at 12:00 am

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