Philadelphia — With the stroke of a pen, Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Corbett exempted the state’s wealthiest counties from the direct impact of natural gas drilling. The controversial process of hydraulic fracturing — fracking — has taken a heavy toll on the rest of the state, turning many rural and once forested areas into industrial zones, contaminating air and water.
On June 30, state lawmakers approved a six-year moratorium on drilling in Montgomery, Bucks and parts of Lehigh, Berks and Chester counties, effectively halting permits for oil or gas operations in the South Newark Basin, a geological formation stretching from New Jersey into southeastern Pennsylvania counties. Some of the state’s most affluent neighborhoods are situated in these exempt counties.
The moratorium clause — hastily buried in Pennsylvania’s 2012 budget prior to it being signed — appears to contradict Act 13, passed in February, that virtually eliminated municipalities’ rights to limit gas drilling.
Before passage of Act 13, cities, including Pittsburgh, had passed bans or set other limits on drilling, fearing its harmful impact on the environment and residents’ health. While levying minimum fees on drillers, Act 13 left local governing bodies powerless to prevent gas drilling even in residential zones or near schools.
Growing gas industry pressure was already casting doubt on the ability of a temporary moratorium imposed by the Delaware River Basin Commission to protect Bucks, Montgomery and other southeastern Pennsylvania counties from drilling. Shortly after Act 13’s passage, Turm Oil Company applied to drill a natural gas well in Nockamixon Township in Bucks County. The Department of Environmental Protection was evaluating the application.
Environmentalists who are lobbying for a statewide moratorium on all drilling, and residents of poorer, rural counties who are battling the negative impact of fracking’s rapid expansion, are objecting to the provision’s inequity.
“Where was our study? Where was our six years?” asked state Rep. Jesse White, who represents communities in drilling country in southwestern Pennsylvania. “What makes Bucks and Montgomery [counties] so special?” (Pittsburgh Post Gazette, July 1)
Yet state Sen. Chuck McIlhinney, a sponsor of the pro-rich moratorium, says Act 13 doesn’t apply to these wealthier counties, “My colleagues in Harrisburg never intended for the Marcellus Shale law to affect our region.” (NorristownPatch.com, July 1)
It is no secret that Gov. Tom Corbett came into office with $1.6 million in financial support from the oil and gas industry. Soon after, he overturned former Gov. Ed Rendell’s executive order that limited additional drilling on state-owned land. Corbett has continually removed obstacles to fracking.
That Corbett approved a moratorium on drilling in the state’s wealthiest neighborhoods shows that he is well aware that the practice is unsafe.
Fracking involves the injection of chemical-laden fluid deep into subterranean shale formations. This toxic liquid can seep into and contaminate nearby water sources. Such contamination led to the deaths of cattle drinking from a Pennsylvania farm’s stream.
A Duke University research team found that drinking water near active shale drilling sites in Pennsylvania and New York has methane concentrations 17 times higher than other wells. Drinking water from these wells can be ignited.
Numerous explosions have occurred at drilling sites. An accident in a Chesapeake Energy well in Pennsylvania caused thousands of gallons of fracking fluid to contaminate the Susquehanna River watershed.
Accidents occur so frequently during the fracking process that earthjustice.org coined the term “fraccidents.” More “fraccidents” have occurred in Pennsylvania than any other state. PennEnvironment Research and Policy Center studied Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection records that revealed 3,355 violations by 64 Marcellus drilling companies between Jan. 1, 2008 and Dec. 31, 2011.
Leaks in disposal wells
The fracking process uses millions of gallons of water for each well drilled. Water is being drained from streams and small lakes across the state and from major rivers like the Susquehanna for use in this process.
The water contaminated during fracking or “flowback” must be disposed of. It may contain naturally occurring poisons like arsenic and radium 226, salts, hydrocarbons and up to 250 chemicals, many of which are known carcinogens.
Flowback water is usually stored in impoundment pits near the wells. In May 2010, a liner of one Tioga County impoundment pit had between 75 and 100 holes, leaking fluid into a surrounding wetland system.
In recent decades, more than 30 trillion gallons of toxic liquid, including fracking flowback, have been injected deep into the earth in injection wells. There are more than 680,000 underground waste and injection wells across the U.S. Injection wells in Ohio have been linked to increased earthquake activity there.
A review of 220,000 well inspections from 2007through 2010 found that structural failures inside injection wells were routine. “More than 7,000 wells showed signs that their walls were leaking.” (ProPublica, June 21)
The documentation of hazards, both current and those that may affect future generations, grows daily, despite claims to the contrary by the natural gas industry and their political spokespeople in Harrisburg. A moratorium on fracking is in order now, not just for the wealthy 1%, but for all of Pennsylvania’s residents.