Hydrofracking: At What Risk?

The gas industry has bombarded the public with television, radio, Internet and billboard ads to convince us that hydrofracking for natural gas in shale deposits will provide the answer to clean energy and our economic woes.  However, the verdict regarding the impact of such drilling on our land, air, and water resources is still out.  Sound decision-making concerning public health must be based on science – and the science isn't in yet.

But on November 21st, before we have all of the facts, the Delaware River Basin Commissioners will vote on whether to lift the current moratorium on high volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the Delaware River Basin. This basin provides drinking water to over 15 million people in Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania.  The importance of awaiting independent scientific feedback is exemplified by EPA raw sampling data released this week for two monitoring wells in Pavillion, Wyoming.  The data show the presence of compounds consistent with hydraulic fracturing, such as the solvent 2 Butoxyethanol (2-BE), phenols, acetone, toluene, naphthalene and traces of diesel fuel.   EPA will release a report, with findings, later this month.  An end to the defacto moratorium now represents a premature misstep that may endanger the health of millions of our residents.

The five commissioners who will make this decision are the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania, and Col. Christopher Larsen of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' North Atlantic Division, who chairs the Commission and represents the federal government.  The mission of the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), as stewards of the Basin's water resources, includes "basing decisions on sound science" and "protecting, enhancing, and developing the water resources of the Delaware River Basin for present and future generations." 

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With a core value of serving the public, a decision of this magnitude should not be made without first reviewing the yet to be completed EPA study The Impacts of Hydrofracking on Water Supply. The overwhelming response to the original Draft Regulations and the fact that over 69,800 comments were submitted, including 4,800 unique letters, 80 of which had attachments, speak volumes about public concern and require more thoughtful consideration.  The League of Women Voters applauds such participation.   However, the revisions to the regulations published this week raise new concerns.  This time, no comments will be allowed.  Is pressure from industry to lift the moratorium so great that it is overwhelming a process carefully designed to protect the public interest?

The DRBC appears willing to abdicate some of its overall responsibility by deferring issues to the states.  For example, each state will set its own critical regulations relating to discharge of wastewater to streams and rivers.   They will also regulate deep injection wells for wastewater within the Basin.

With the public's health at stake, and limited finances to fund health care, these concerns should not be taken lightly.  The drinking water of 81% of Delaware, 34% of New Jersey, 32% of New York and 42% of Pennsylvania's residents is at risk.* Unfortunately, the Environmental Impact Study the DRBC originally requested was never funded.  Such a study could have evaluated impacts to air quality from drilling pads, waste impoundments and compressor stations.  It could also have studied local seismic sensitivity and specifics of the area's geology, climate and topography.

The residents of our four states deserve better than to have an under-informed vote determine whether or not to lift the moratorium.  According to its mission, "The Commission will be the leader in protecting, enhancing, and developing the water resources for the Delaware River Basin for present and future generations."  The Leagues of Women Voters of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania support this mission and therefore urge every concerned citizen to contact her/his Governor, and the Commission as a whole.  Ask them to wait before finalizing regulations or issuing permits, until the scientific results of the EPA study can be published, reviewed, and understood.  These results can then be incorporated into a common sense scheme for handling the drinking water sources that sustain the lives of millions of Americans.  

(*Earth Institute at Columbia University)

This op-ed is co-written by the presidents of four state Leagues: Carol Jones, President, League of Women Voters of Delaware, Toni Zimmer, President, League of Women Voters of New Jersey, Betsy Swan, President, League of Women Voters of New York State, Olivia Thorne, President, League of Women Voters of Pennsylvania

 The Guest Column is our readers' opportunity to write about a given issue or topic in an in-depth and educational manner.

The opinions expressed herein are the writer's alone, and do not reflect the opinions of or anyone who works for is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the writer.

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