Susquehanna River Basin panel to reconsider water permits

Posted: January 24, 2012

The Susquehanna River Basin Commission will reconsider more than 20 water permits it approved for Marcellus Shale gas drillers during a raucous meeting last month that was disrupted by antidrilling activists.

The SRBC said Monday that it would hear new public comment Feb. 16 for 24 water-withdrawal applications it approved in December. Environmental groups have questioned the validity of the commission's vote, which was conducted hastily after demonstrators interrupted public testimony.

The commission regards the votes as valid, but will reconsider the decisions after the new hearing.

"We are committed to preserving the due-process rights of all citizens so they can provide constructive and meaningful comments on proposed projects," SRBC executive director Paul Swartz said in a statement.

The commission, based in Harrisburg, manages water use in the 27,510-square-mile Susquehanna watershed in New York, Pennsylvania, and Maryland.

Since the Marcellus drilling boom took off in 2008, SRBC has approved 157 permits to withdraw 129.5 million gallons a day from rivers and aquifers, though actual withdrawals amount to about seven million to eight million gallons per day, said Susan Obleski, the commission's spokeswoman.

Until December, the commission's actions attracted little attention. The protests at the commission's quarterly meeting in Wilkes-Barre served as "a little bit of a wake-up call," said Obleski.

"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," said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania state director of Clean Water Action.

Obleski said the commission would now require speakers to register and spectators to sign in and show photo identification. Placards and banners will be permitted in designated areas outside the hearing room. She said similar procedures have been used by other public agencies.

Obleski said the commission would now conduct public hearings 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 also be present, she said, and the commission will be seated at a distance from the audience, because some of the shouting protesters in December came "within inches" of the commissioners.

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. Drilling operators pay a fee based upon metered withdrawals.


Contact staff writer Andrew Maykuth

at 215-854-2947, amaykuth@phillynews.com,

or @Maykuth on Twitter.

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