"The commission has decided to reconsider its December action on those project applications because the disruptive behavior of certain individuals prevented interested persons from offering testimony at the time," SRBC executive director Paul Swartz said in a statement. "We are committed to preserving the due-process rights of all citizens so they can provide constructive and meaningful comments on proposed projects."
The commission, based in Harrisburg, manages water use in the 27,510-square-mile Susquehanna watershed in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.
Without attracting much protest, the SRBC has approved scores of water withdrawals in northern Pennsylvania since the Marcellus drilling boom took off in 2008. The protests at the commission's quarterly meeting in December, held in Wilkes-Barre, served as "a little bit of a wakeup call," said Susan Obleski, the commission's spokeswoman.
To impose more order, Obleski said, the commission will require speakers to register in advance and spectators to sign in and show photo identification. Posters and banners will be permitted in designated areas outside the hearing room. She said similar procedures are used by other public agencies.
Obleski said the commission will now conduct public hearings in Harrisburg about a month before its quarterly business meetings, rather than at the same meeting, to allow commissioners to consider the testimony before voting.
More security will be deployed at future hearings, she said, and the commission will be seated at more of a distance from the audience because some of the shouting protesters in December came "within inches" of the commissioners.
Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action, who was among the environmental leaders calling into question the legality of the commission's December actions, said he was "glad to see the SRBC set up a clear public-hearing process" but still questioned the vote's validity.
"I think there is a realization in the community that the SRBC is making some major decisions and will be paying more attention to them in the future," he said.
Unlike the Delaware River Basin Commission, which is engulfed in controversy over proposed drilling regulations in the Delaware watershed, SRBC limits its concern to managing the withdrawals of water by various municipal, agricultural, recreational and industrial users to maintain a healthy stream flow in the Susquehanna basin.
Withdrawal permits are critical to the gas-drilling industry, which uses large amounts of water to hydraulically fracture wells to stimulate production.
For more on Susquehanna River Basin Commission: http://www.srbc.net
A video of civil disobedience at SRBC's December meeting: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=asHZdHJZv-o
Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth at 215-854-2947, @Maykuth on Twitter or email@example.com