The Susquehanna River Basin Commission will expand its water-quality monitoring network to small rivers and creeks in the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling area, thanks to a gift from a gas company.

East Resources, Inc., a drilling company based Warrendale, PA, announced in December that it would contribute the $750,000 needed to set up the monitoring network. Initially, the commission expected it would have to raise the funds through a variety of federal and state sources.

"With this contribution, the commission has now secured a commitment of the financial resources needed to proceed with the project sooner than planned," said SRBC executive director Paul Swartz. "If winter weather cooperates, we could begin installing equipment as soon as January 2010."

The commission is an independent agency-with representatives from New York, Maryland, Pennsylvania and the federal government-created to guide the conservation, development and administration of the Susquehanna basin's water resources.

Concern has grown that the process used to extract natural gas from the Marcellus Shale formation, which uses large amounts of water and a variety of chemicals, could threaten Pennsylvania streams near drilling sites.

The SRBC announcement followed news that another agency, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, will also be stepping up inspections of Marcellus Shale wells. In November, the Fish and Boat Commission announced that, beginning this month, they will be inspecting gas wells that are near wetlands and streams to make sure no drilling waste or other material is getting into the waterways. So far, the Fish and Boat commission has identified 150 wells to inspect.

Prior to the announcement, the Fish and Boat Commission was largely reactive, and would only get involved if they got a report about a leak. The primary agency regulating and inspecting natural gas wells is the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection. The DEP has had jurisdiction over the natural gas industry in Pennsylvania since 1984. But in the past two years, as drilling has intensified in western and north-central Pennsylvania, environmentalists, scientists and citizens have complained that the DEP is not doing enough to protect the waterways from drilling problems, including spills.

The SRBC announced in October its plans to check waterways in north-central Pennsylvania and New York for any contamination or changes in temperature resulting from natural-gas drilling.

It hosted a meeting in Williamsport, PA, to discuss the network with scientists, urban planners and environmental activists with the hope of spreading the word about the funding needs. At the time, SRBC officials expressed some concern that, while several gas-industry executives were invited to the meeting, only one came. The meeting was followed by a tour of a gas-drilling site about a half-hour north.

The money from East Resources will enable the commission to set up 30 initial water-quality monitoring stations in the regions where drilling in the Marcellus Shale is most active, as well as places where there is no drilling for a comparison sample. Each station will have sensors and a transmitter to continuously monitor for temperature, pH, dissolved oxygen, depth, conductance (ability to conduct electricity) and turbidity (water clarity). The information will be on the river commission's website, allowing the SRBC to quickly report problems to town managers, gas companies, regulators and scientists.

The commission, which regulates water withdrawals but not water quality, is hoping that the state's DEP will be able to take swift action in the event of contamination, thanks to the monitoring.

SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski said the commission is hoping that, as the economy improves, government agencies will also contribute. "We know the agencies are very interested in the project and we believe there may be a few that are currently considering options for supporting it.

"Many agencies are experiencing extremely difficult budgetary times, and so we do understand and appreciate that they need more time before they can make any specific financial commitments," she said.

In gas-drilling, depth and conductivity are the two most important measurements. Workers need millions of gallons of water to "frack" each well, a process that creatures fissures in the shale. With the new network, the SRBC can determine any hardships from these withdrawals.

When the water comes back up from the shale, it is laced with "total dissolved solids," a catchall term for a cocktail of salts and metals both from the shale and the chemicals gas companies use as additives to help the rock fracture. A conductivity test will determine how much TDS are in the water. The amount of TDS is about 200 times higher in water produced by the gas industry than it is in water naturally flowing in the streams, according to the SRBC.

In places such as the Monongahela River, regulators have not been able to conclude that high concentrations of TDS were the result of drilling because of so many other industries operating in the area. But in the regions where the SRBC will be monitoring, there are not many other industries, so it will be easier to pinpoint the causes and remedy them.

Natural gas drilling continues to be contentious in both Pennsylvania and New York. Just before Thanksgiving, 15 families in Dimock filed a lawsuit against Cabot for contaminating their drinking water and their land and causing illnesses of the digestive system, the nervous system and the skin.

Among the plaintiffs are Norma Fiorentino and Victoria Switzer, who were featured in the December issue of the Bay Journal (See: "Marcellus Shale: Pipe dreams in Pennsylvania"). Both have not been able to drink their water for nearly a year.

Cabot spokesman Ken Kamoroski told the local press that the claims had no merit and that he was "disappointed" they had decided to sue. Dimock residents have said the lawsuit was a last resort for justice, after failing to get the attention of their legislators or regulators.