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Agency Rules on Hydraulic Fracturing Anger Supporters and Foes

By regulating "fracking," Delaware River Basin Commission hopes to protect drinking water for 15 million people.

There is a lot of debate about the merits of drilling for natural gas in parts of Pennsylvania and New York, but there is one issue both proponents and foes seem to agree on: neither likes the regulations governing exploration for the fuel drawn up by the Delaware River Basin Commission.

That point was clear yesterday as the intrastate agency held a hearing on its proposed rules aimed at protecting the water resources under its purview, the source of drinking water for more than 15 million people, including 3 million in New Jersey.

Its decision is being closely watched because vast new supplies of natural gas have been found in the Marcellus Shale in the Northeast, a discovery that has pushed down the price of the fuel, which is one of the main ways of generating electricity and the primary way people heat their homes in the winter.

Friends and Foes Alike

The rules, more than three years in the making, were bashed by both environmentalists and elected officials as falling far short in protecting water from the drilling, which involves a procedure called hydraulic fracturing. Dubbed "fracking," the process involves injecting millions of gallons of water and chemicals into shale deposits to extract the natural gas.

But proponents of the drilling, including many property owners and farmers in mostly rural Pennsylvania counties where large deposits of gas have been found, were equally critical, describing the rules as so onerous that hardly any drilling will occur.

More than a hundred people packed the hearing, which was often punctuated by people both pro and con shouting and interrupting speakers, who were kept to a tight two-minute timeframe.

The Marcellus Shale underlies approximately 36 percent of the basin in the three states, overlapping much of the critical watershed lands overseen by the commission, according to William Muszynski, water resources manager for the commission. The agency expects between 15,000 and 18,000 horizontal wells will be drilled over the next two decades, using as much 90 billion gallons of water.

The agency's rules basically boil down to three areas: water withdrawals and use; well pads used for drilling; and ancillary infrastructure and disposal of wastewater from the operations. Robert Tudor, deputy director of the commission, said the agency tried to "cherry pick" the best regulations from dozens of rules studied.

No Way to Protect Water

But opponents argued that no regulations could be designed safely enough to ensure drinking water supplies would not be contaminated by the fracking.

"What is the rush?" asked Madeline Rawley, a township committee member from Doylestown who pleaded with the commission, as did others, to wait until ongoing studies by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and others on the effects of fracking are completed. "Give us a little time until we find out the effects of this drilling," she said.

Maya von Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, told the commission there are alternative sources of energy to the natural gas found in the Marcellus Shale. "There is no alternative to water," she said, adding that the commission doesn’t have the expertise to protect drinking water supplies from shale gas drilling.

Jim Walsh, executive director of Food & Water Watch, noted there were more than 1,000 documented cases of water contamination stemming from risky drilling for natural gas around the nation. He faulted the proposed rules for failing to address the cumulative impact of thousands of wells being drilled.

Others disputed that the drilling is unsafe, and instead suggested the rules could bring drilling to a halt.

Allan Nowicki, a well driller from Pennsylvania, called proposed regulations "unacceptable and unworkable," predicting the rules would be so burdensome as to limit the oil and gas industry’s ability to access capital markets.

John Harmon, president and founder of the African American Chamber of Commerce of New Jersey, warned the rules could harm the state’s economy. "Regulators at the commission want to create more red tape by putting in place duplicative new rules and imposing hefty fees on business operations," Harmon said.

Others criticized the rules as infringing upon their property rights. "It’s not their land and it’s not their water," said one property owner in Doylestown. "And I’ll do what I want whether they like it or not."

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