Groups seek impact statement on effects of Marcellus Shale drilling
Environmentalists argue that hydro-fracking's cumulative effects should be part of TMDL
Eight environmental groups are asking the federal government to conduct an environmental impact statement on the cumulative effects of natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
Already, many companies have descended on Chesapeake Bay watershed states with rich shale deposits - among them Pennsylvania, West Virginia and New York - and begun drilling for the gas deposits that lie 8,000 feet below the surface. Yet little is known about the total effects of this drilling and the damage it can do to water supplies, forests, air quality, fish and bird habitats, and drinking water.
Using a process called hydro- fracking, drillers bore down into the rock, then turn the drill and bore horizontally through the shale bed. They pump millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and a number of chemicals under high pressure into the well to fracture the rock. About a fifth of that water and the chemicals comes back up as waste.
Drilling has brought some economic benefits to Pennsylvania and West Virginia, but it has also created big environmental problems. Among them: fish kills in creeks resulting from toxic spills, contaminated drinking water and depleted streams where prize fish used to run.
Complicating matters further is the newly instituted Chesapeake Bay Total Maximum Daily Load, a pollution diet that requires farms, sewage-treatment plants and stormwater utilities to upgrade their systems and reduce nutrients flowing into the Bay. The TMDL does not yet ask for such concessions from drillers.
"The cumulative effects of this drilling, we feel, have not been adequately addressed. And we want these incorporated in the TMDL," said Matt Ehrhart, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Pennsylvania director. "It's fundamentally inequitable for us to continue to not understand these impacts and shift the responsibility to other sectors."
In addition to the Bay Foundation, petitioners include the Foundation for Pennsylvania Watersheds, Shenandoah Valley Network, National Parks Conservation Association, Chesapeake Climate Action Network, Appalachian Center for the Economy and the Environment, Friends of the Upper Delaware and Damascus Citizens for Sustainability.
The environmental impact statement stems from a provision of the National Environmental Policy Act, a law established in 1969 after several alarming incidents of ecosystem destruction, among them the Santa Barbara oil spill. The law requires all federal agencies to conduct thorough environmental reviews before approving or undertaking a project.
Environmental impact statements are often undertaken in connection with a single project before it begins, such as the construction of a facility on an Army base. But they have been applied more broadly to programs instead of projects.
The EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers jointly conducted an environmental impact statement on the problems associated with mountaintop mining after the practice had already begun. The Bureau of Land Management also prepared an EIS looking at wind energy in the West. Closer to home, the Corps worked with Maryland and Virginia on a wide-ranging, multi-year EIS to determine whether to introduce a species of Asian oysters into the Chesapeake.
"They do have the ability to look at cumulative impacts," said CBF counsel Amy McDonnell. "We think the legal footing is pretty strong. There are multiple major actions here."
Of particular concern are national parks, nine of which are in the Chesapeake Bay watershed's piece of the Marcellus. George Washington and Jefferson National Forests in Virginia also overlay a large part of the Marcellus formation.
"The introduction of drilling in or near national parks could be drastically disruptive," said Cinda M. Waldbuesser, Pennsylvania program manager of the National Parks Conservation Association. "The economic benefits of Marcellus drilling cannot compromise our national parks."
A larger coalition of more than two dozen environmental groups wrote a letter to President Barack Obama asking for greater federal oversight of drilling. Since 2005, hydro-fracking has been exempt from the Safe Drinking Water Act. As a result, companies do not have to disclose what is in their fracking fluid, and much of the industry relies on self-reporting.
While Pennsylvania is pressing ahead with drilling, New York has halted the practice through a moratorium. Drilling has not yet begun in Virginia because the only company to apply for a permit was not able to receive one because of a county restriction.
A bill to halt drilling in Maryland failed after the industry balked at the terms of the two-year study the state wanted to undertake. The industry was to pay $1 million for the two-year study, but wanted to drill as the research went on. Maryland officials opposed that.
But the failure of that bill doesn't appear to have changed the state's position.
Maryland Acting Environmental Secretary Robert Summers said Maryland continues to have grave concerns about drilling and is planning to study the issue and make sure it has tight regulations in place before drilling begins. The department may allow the drilling of some exploratory wells as part of the study,
"Having observed events in Pennsylvania during the first few years of Marcellus Shale drilling there, Governor (Martin) O'Malley, the Department of the Environment, and the Department of Natural Resources are determined to ensure that drilling will not start in Maryland until we know whether, and how, it can be done safely," Summers told a congressional committee during a recent hearing on natural gas drilling. "We are proceeding cautiously and deliberately and do not intend to allow drilling and fracking in the Marcellus Shale until the issues are resolved to our satisfaction."
- Category: Energy
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