Shale-gas regulation near river divides Pa.

Click to expand graphic.
Click to expand graphic. (John Duchneskie)

Rules drafted to protect the Delaware from fracking pit Phila. interests against those in the northeast.

Posted: April 03, 2011

Louis Matoushek wants natural gas production to start yesterday on his land northeast of Scranton. His livelihood is at stake.

The holdup is that it's near the Delaware River.

Three years ago, after a company had already drilled a well, the commission that governs water use in the river halted all activity.

"I'm very upset," said Matoushek, who's retired. "They changed the rules in the middle of the game."

About 150 miles downstream in Philadelphia, Christopher Crockett wants to slam on the brakes. The drinking water for millions of people in Philadelphia and its suburbs is at stake.

Crockett, who heads planning for the Philadelphia Water Department, fears that mistakes will hit his intakes.

"We want to make sure we have the science before the policy," he said.

These are dueling viewpoints for an epic decision - setting the conditions to allow natural gas drilling in the Delaware River basin, with its potentially rich deposits.

As the high-stakes gold rush has spread across Pennsylvania - nearly 3,000 natural gas wells drilled since 2005 and tens of thousands more to come - an area of roughly five counties in northeastern Pennsylvania has remained off limits.

And that has kept the Philadelphia region largely untouched by the boom and the environmental havoc that opponents say it can cause.

Now, against a backdrop of mounting accidents, debate over a severance tax, and last week's disclosure that the state Department of Environmental Protection's acting secretary, Michael Krancer, must approve all enforcement actions, the Delaware River Basin is seen as the next great frontier for fracking.

The group calling the shots is the Delaware River Basin Commission, a little-known interstate agency that oversees withdrawals and water quality in the vast watershed drained by the 330-mile-long Delaware River.

In December, the commission proposed 83 pages of regulations that would open wide-scale drilling for the first time but with rules that would be, in general, stricter than in the rest of Pennsylvania. A public comment period continues until April 15. Final rules could be adopted in September.

Before the commission acted, thousands of acres had been leased and seven wells drilled in northeastern Pennsylvania. But none were fracked - a process of injecting millions of gallons of water treated with chemicals, some toxic, into the ground to free the gas.

Environmental advocates had urged the commission to wait. They wanted it to complete a study that would assess the cumulative impacts, as New York is doing.

The industry urged the commission to act. The region needs an economic boost, and the nation is hungry for clean-burning, domestic energy.

While the Marcellus Shale, which contains the gas, underlies only about a third of the basin, that area includes the river's headwaters, the most sensitive sector.

The commission cites projections showing that the shale areas of the basin, which includes portions of New York, could have 15,000 to 18,000 wells at some point, built on about 2,000 well pads encompassing up to 12,000 acres, plus more land for pipelines and infrastructure.

In a forested, rural area, a major industry would arrive.

The stakes are higher in the Delaware since it provides drinking water for so many people - 15 million - from Philadelphia to New York.

Plus, portions of the river are so pristine they warrant extra oversight. Stretches north of Trenton have been federally designated as "wild and scenic" and "special protection" waters.

This is due at least in part to the commission, which was created in 1961 as a way to put an end to three decades of water wars fought in court. Even in the water-rich Mid-Atlantic, there wasn't enough river to meet the demands of the four states the Delaware drains - Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, and New York.

Not surprisingly, the member states have differing interests on natural gas.

Pennsylvania, with a governor who has embraced the economic potential, and who took major contributions from drilling companies, is pushing to move ahead.

Its commission representative, John Hines, the DEP's executive deputy secretary for programs, wants action. "It's time to make decisions, create certainty," he said.

Delaware and New Jersey have no shale. So they have everything to lose environmentally and nothing to gain economically - other than indirect benefits, such as lower prices for natural gas.

Both have been cautious.

"These are decisions that are going to affect multiple generations," said Delaware's Collin O'Mara, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control. "It's better to get it right than to do it fast."

New Jersey's DRBC commissioner, John Plonski, also the state Department of Environmental Protection's assistant commissioner for water resources, said the state "has always taken the position that our primary responsibility is to protect the integrity of the Delaware River."

New York has shale but also a law that requires an environmental impact study before any drilling. That study is in progress.

The fifth member of the commission is a federal representative, Brig. Gen. Peter DeLuca of the Army Corps of Engineers. He has an ad hoc advisory panel of 16 federal entities, from a Department of Energy that wants to see more domestic energy to a National Park Service concerned about "viewsheds."

Carol R. Collier, a biologist and regional planner who has worked with an environmental engineering firm, is the DRBC executive director. Before proposing the regulations, she said, the staff talked to experts across the nation.

In general, the regulations involve the commission from the beginning - in the selection of well-pad locations. The rules would set strict setback requirements from water bodies and wetlands. They also would require the tracking of water and a chemical analysis of substances in the frack water "flowback," which can contain radioactivity.

"We feel we have something proposed that will allow the drilling to go ahead, but still be protective of the special resources," Collier said.

Public hearings have attracted busloads of people. Emotions have run high.

Property owners' voices crack as they speak of family farms being sold instead of passed to children.

Drilling opponents invoke their children, too, citing concerns about toxic chemicals.

The commission anticipated so many written comments that it restricted submissions - no faxes or e-mails - and used National Park Service software to track the comments.

More than 4,000 have come in, and officials expect a last-minute blitz before April 15.

Industry has said the regulations would be crippling. In public testimony, David Callahan, vice president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, called some provisions "simply unworkable" and a bond of $125,000 per well "excessive."

"This unprecedented grant of authority" raised questions about whether the commission had the staff "to administer this very elaborate process," he said.

Environmental advocates call the proposed regulations weak and incomplete. "It will end up being a death by a thousand cuts," said Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

She said provisions would allow some drillers to self-regulate and keep records on-site instead of at the commission, accessible to the public.

Carluccio also warned that if water quality declined from drilling, other dischargers, such as sewage plants and industries, might face more expensive limits to correct the overall water quality.

The Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, with 1,300 member families and 100,000 acres leased, contends the regulations would take away property rights.

The alliance said the proposed rules contained too much duplication with state regulations and would discriminate against one industry.

Alliance spokesman Peter Wynne said a 500-foot setback from waterways and wetlands, combined with restrictions for drilling on steep slopes, would mean that "for all practical purposes, there is no land in Wayne County where there can be drilling."

Louis Matoushek, meanwhile, is simply angry.

His wife, 68, still works. "She deserves a rest."

Unable to get a job any place else, Matoushek, 69, said he would love to go just across the ridgeline into the Susquehanna River basin, where the natural gas business is booming. "But that's for the young bucks," he said.

To the Philadelphia Water Department's Crockett, the stakes are too high to dismiss, given the potential scale of the industry, the speed at which it is moving, and scientific uncertainty.

"Put those three things in a pot and turn on the heat, you've got a recipe for a lot of anxiety," he said.

The department calls for more water monitoring, full reforestation of lands cleared for drilling, and not allowing any wastewater discharges upriver, even if treated. It, too, wants more studies.

Water officials will "invite ourselves into the room of every discussion we want to be a part of," Crockett said. "We are not going to go away."

Drinking From the Delaware

These agencies and companies get all or part of the drinking water they provide directly from the Delaware:

Aqua Pennsylvania

Bucks County Water and Sewer Authority

Easton City Water Treatment Plant

Lower Bucks County Joint Municipal Authority

Morrisville Municipal Authority

New Jersey American Water Western Division (Delran)

New Jersey Water Supply Authority

North Penn Water Authority

North Wales Water Authority

Pennsylvania American Water Co., Yardley District

Philadelphia Water Department

Trenton Water Works

Burlington City

SOURCE: Delaware River Basin Commission

Commission's proposed rules for drilling wells

Here are details of the Delaware River Basin Commission's draft regulations, based on a talk with executive director Carol R. Collier and William Muszynski, water-resources manager.

Companies that have lease holdings of more than 3,200 acres or that intend to construct more than five well pads must submit overall development plans identifying features of the area and where well pads would go.

The intent is to take a holistic approach, rather than regulating well by well, Collier said. The rule would allow for incentives for companies to drill away from sensitive areas, she said.

"One thing we're worried about is the water-quality creep, the chronic problem of increased erosion and sedimentation, the decrease in forest cover, the increase in impervious cover," Collier said. "You don't notice until it's almost too late."

Companies would be restricted from putting well pads on steep slopes, in areas that are critical habitat for endangered species, and within the "floodway" - the main part of a floodplain. The pads would have to be set back 500 feet from water bodies or wetlands.

Any water withdrawal for natural gas must come from a DRBC-approved source. The agency would require tracking from withdrawal through fracking to possible reuse and ultimate disposal.

Well construction and operation would remain the regulatory purview of the states. But the DRBC would require tanks, instead of open ponds, for flowback water.

Drilling refuse - called "cuttings" - could not be buried on site, as Pennsylvania allows. It would have to be disposed of properly off site.

Companies would have to specify the fracking "recipes" used and test and report on the flowback water, which picks up substances and naturally occurring radiation from the formation.

Companies would submit a wastewater plan before drilling, showing that a treatment facility will accept the wastewater and is permitted to treat it.

Before drilling, companies would have to monitor water upstream and downstream as well as nearby groundwater wells.

Public wastewater treatment facilities would need to get permission from the DRBC before accepting fracking wastewater. A feasibility study and an analysis of the effluent's toxicity would be required to ensure that treatment would be adequate.

- Sandy Bauers


The river and Marcellus Shale. Graphic, A24.

  Pennsylvania's gas rush. Business, E1.

Shale gas and new clean-air rules are easing energy woes. Currents, C1.


Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or

Visit her blog at


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