Two Big Decisions Loom on the Fate of Drinking Water for 15 Million People Living Near the Marcellus Shale
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The fate of fracking in the Northeast may be determined soon.
On Nov. 21, the Delaware River Basin Commission, comprising representatives from four states (New York, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware) and the federal government, will vote on whether to allow the intensive method of natural-gas drilling in the river's watershed. The watershed, which supplies drinking water for more than 15 million people, overlaps the eastern end of the Marcellus Shale, an underground geological formation touted as the "Saudi Arabia of natural gas."
The commission's rules, which will apply in the Delaware watershed, will overlap with state regulations. Pennsylvania already allows fracking. New York is in the process of developing regulations about where it might be allowed and under what conditions. The state Department of Environmental Conservation will hold public hearings in November, and says it will decide sometime next year. Many environmental activists believe Gov. Andrew Cuomo is fast-tracking the issue.
Fracking is currently on hold in New York and the Delaware watershed while regulations are being developed. In Pennsylvania west of the Delaware watershed, more than 4,000 wells have been drilled since 2005, with almost 1,500 started this year.
The proposed Delaware River regulations will be released Nov. 7. Environmental activists are pessimistic about both processes. "We know they're going to going to be bad," says Tracy Carluccio, deputy director of Delaware Riverkeeper. "We don't know how bad."
"The fix is in in both," says Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy. "Cuomo's going to shove it down our throats."
Fracking -- a nickname for "high-volume hydraulic fracturing" -- involves drilling down into shale layers thousands of feet underground, then pumping in thousands of gallons of water, sand and often toxic additives to shatter the shale and enable gas trapped in it to bubble up through the pipes. Unlike traditional gas wells, which go straight up and down, fracking wells are drilled out horizontally once they reach the shale. The process is fraught with environmental hazards, from aboveground spills to the possibility of gas and the toxic chemicals used leaking into groundwater.
The Marcellus Shale is a layer of black shale rich in organic materials along the west side of the Appalachian Mountains. Formed about 400 million years ago, it covers the area under eastern Ohio, most of Pennsylvania, almost all of West Virginia, the Maryland panhandle, and upstate New York from the Southern Tier counties along the Pennsylvania border to the Catskill Mountains. Most of it is more than a mile underground, but the areas where it is closer to the surface -- northern Pennsylvania and upstate New York -- are where the gas is purest and most easily accessible.
NY Learning from Pennsylvania's Mistakes?
Pennsylvania has relatively loose regulations. It allows drilling as little as 100 feet away from streams or wetlands and 200 feet from a structure. While it prohibits companies from dumping drilling waste into streams or unlined pits, it lets them store it in open-air pits, as long as the pits are lined with a synthetic material.
The proposed New York regulations, at least the draft issued in September, would be somewhat stricter. They would allow fracking in an estimated 80 percent of the Marcellus Shale, but would ban it within 2,000 feet of public drinking-water supplies and within 500 feet of private wells. They would require "flowback" -- the water that returns to the Earth's surface after fracking, which contains numerous toxic chemicals used in the process -- to be stored in watertight tanks. Most important for both political and environmental reasons, they would prohibit fracking within 4,000 feet of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, as both cities do not filter their water supplies, and it would cost billions of dollars to build filtration plants.