Meet America's Most Endangered River, Thanks to the Natural Gas Drilling Industry

Editor's Note: At publication of this story, news just broke of a ruptured natural gas well in Pennsylvania that has resulted in a spill. It was brought under control on the afternoon of June 4th, but not until a million gallons of toxic drilling fluid flowed into the ground in an area rich with tributaries to a major American river.

Massive natural gas drilling under way in Pennsylvania and imminent in New York makes the Upper Delaware the most endangered river in America, according to American Rivers, a major environmental organization, whose yearly report, America's 10 Most Endangered Rivers, focuses national attention on rivers that need immediate safeguarding for "the benefit of people, wildlife and nature." On June 2nd, in a commemorative ceremony in Narrowsburg, NY, overlooking the majestic river, local citizens and leaders from government and advocacy groups gathered to hear the announcement, vowing to take action to protect the pristine river which provides drinking water for some 17 million people in New York and Pennsylvania.

Speakers, who included NY Congressman Maurice Hinchey, National Park Service superintendent Sean McGuinness, Ramsay Adams of Catskill Mountainkeeper, Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, and Marcia Nehemiah of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, stressed the need to protect the river and its basin from the unregulated gas drilling which has which wreaked havoc on water, air, health, economies, and quality of life across 32 states, and unregulated oil drilling which devastated the Gulf of Mexico waters and coast for years to come: "We've seen what happens when energy companies are granted unfettered access to our precious natural resources without proper oversight," Hinchey said. "In the wake of one of the largest environmental disasters in our nation's history, as millions of gallons of oil spew into the Gulf of Mexico, the need for action to protect the Delaware River could not be more clear."

The Historic River Under Attack

The 2010 America's Most Endangered Rivers (MER) paints a picture of the dramatic river: "The Upper Delaware...winds through deep forests and farmland, past towering cliffs and historic towns." The river's 73 most northern miles, designated by Congress in 1978 as as one of the original National Wild and Scenic Rivers and a unit of the National Park System, provides sightseeing, boating, camping, hunting, fishing, hiking, and bird watching to millions each year and a home to thousands of rare and endangered species.

The report explains that because the Upper Delaware River and its watershed are located above the Marcellus Shale, recently discovered to contain vast deposits of methane, "multinational energy corporations have acquired drilling rights to large tracts of land in the watershed." The report notes that two companies alone--Chesapeake Appalachia and Statoil--have announced their intention to develop up to 17,000 gas wells in the region in next 20 years."

The process of hydraulic fracturing would extract between 3 and 9 million gallons of water per well to be mixed with sand and some 650 chemicals (many toxic and undisclosed) to be pressure pumped into shale to release gas, the MER report explains. Thousands of truck trips per well are required to transport this water, contributing to road degradation, noise and air pollution, and spills of contaminated water. Extracting gas from shale results in surface and groundwater pollution, air pollution, soil contamination, habitat fragmentation, and erosion.

Hydraulic fracking exemption under the 2005 Energy Bill protects industry practices, the report makes clear, bypassing existing federal regulations regarding use and disposal of toxic chemicals and disposal of hazardous fracking wastewater (19 million gallons a day in Pennsylvania alone), which the industry has re-termed "special," and proposes to dispose of in the Upper Delaware watershed itself.

Actions to Take

The publication proposes particular actions to protect each of the rivers under imminent threat. For the most endangered Delaware, American Rivers urges the passing of the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009, which would require industry to disclose the chemicals it uses, and conform to existing environmental regulation.

The report cites New York City's Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) year-long study which concluded that the cumulative impact of hydraulic fracturing posed "catastrophic consequences" to the city's drinking water supply. NY State, the report says, must pass a legislative ban within the entire Delaware watershed (not just the area around the NYC reservoirs) "in order to protect the water supply of the largest city in the country." 

American Rivers' report called not only on federal and state governments but the Delaware River Basin Commission to research and regulate responsibly.

The DRBC and the MMS Exploratory/Test Lookphole

Much of the American Rivers report on the Upper Delaware as well as comments at the June 2nd commemoration pertain to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), a regional body made up of the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware, and the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Last spring, the DRBC asserted its authority over drilling in the Delaware River Basin, and, last month, it issued a moratorium on gas drilling until its regulations are finalized. Both of these declarations, however, exclude exploratory or test wells from DRBC review and regulation.

Damascus Citizens for Responsibility announced at the commemoration that it has filed legal papers with the DRCB to challenge its exclusion of exploratory wells from its jurisdiction. DCS attorney Jeff Zimmerman told Alternet that DCS has requested a hearing with DRCB in order to consider and clarifiy these exclusions, which could provide a loophole for rampant unregulated drilling in the Delaware basin. "The Minerals Management Service excluded the BP Deepwater Horizon well from review, we now know, because it was deemed 'exploratory,'" DCS's Pat Carullo told Alternet. Ramsay Adams, Excecutive Director of Catskills Mountainkeeper, told those gathered at the June 2nd commemoration, "Today is the first chapter of a story that has two possible endings....We can either come together and protect, nurture and care for this irreplaceable resource or we can let the blind pursuit of profits turn the Delaware into our Gulf.

A formal American Rivers ceremony in Washington DC on June 4th will include Interior Secretary Ken Salazar. Last month, Secretary Salazar proposed enhanced oversight of not only offshore but onshore drilling for oil and gas in the light of the BP tragedy.


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