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Environmentalists Accuse PennEast of Test Drilling Without Permit

State DEP asserts company had requisite paperwork; PennEast dismisses claims as ‘intentionally inaccurate’

PennEast wastewater
Credit: Delaware Riverkeeper Network
Wastewater from a PennEast test-drilling site; the Delaware Riverkeeper Network claims it was draining into a "pristine pond."

Controversy over plans to build a natural-gas pipeline through two New Jersey counties heated up again on Wednesday when state officials denied environmentalists’ claims that the company was trying to advance the project by drilling test wells along the route without a permit.

Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which has vociferously opposed the PennEast Pipeline project, released a statement earlier Wednesday accusing the company of conducting the tests in Holland Township, Hunterdon County, without a permit from the state Department of Environmental Protection.

The environmental group also said the operation was drawing water from a spring-fed pond in Holland Township, and that polluted water from the operation was entering the pond.

Larry Hajna, a spokesman for the DEP, said PennEast did obtain a permit for the operation in order to go deeper than 50 feet.

“The driller contacted the well-permitting program before proceeding and got the necessary permit,” Hajna said. “The driller has the permission of the property owner for the current activities.”

Hajna said the company obtained potable water from a local fire department ahead of time, casting doubt on DRN’s claims that the company was drawing water from the pond.

The proposed $1 billion pipeline would carry natural gas about 110 miles from the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania’s Luzerne County to a terminal in Pennington, NJ.

Public opposition to the line in Hunterdon and Mercer counties has resulted in only about a third of targeted property owners giving PennEast access to their land, and the DEP has told the company not to apply for some permits until it has determined the pipeline’s exact route.

A DEP inspector visited the site on Wednesday afternoon and found a “small discharge” into an algae-filled body of water but the official could not tell whether the discharge was from the drilling operation or from groundwater that seeped to the surface, Hajna said.

DRN, which has been urging residents along the route not to lease their land for pipeline construction, said that PennEast began drilling on Monday at a property on Old River Road.

The group said it alerted DEP officials and recorded the operation on a videotape, which it posted on its website. “It became clear that PennEast was drilling without the necessary DEP permit,” DRN said in its statement.

“PennEast hasn’t even submitted their official application to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission for this pipeline and they are already violating the law and fouling our environment,” said Maya van Rossum, who heads the DRN.

Patricia Kornick, a spokeswoman for PennEast, said the company was conducting “geotechnical borings” in order to determine the underlying geology in the area where the pipeline would be built.

She said the company had all the necessary permits, and was not using water from a local pond, as claimed by DRN. She also dismissed DRN’s accusation that water from the drilling was polluting the pond.

“The situation referenced regarding the ‘pristine’ pond primarily was the result of freshwater from the drilling operations seeping through existing underground fractures,” Kornick said. “Polluting a pond with freshwater is impossible and clearly sensationalizing on behalf of DRN.”

She called DRN’s account “intentionally inaccurate” and said it underscored the need to educate the public on best practices in building out natural gas infrastructure.

The DEP’s Hajna said officials will return to the site on Thursday to check on PennEast’s handling of the drilling water.

Jon Hurdle is a freelance writer who lives in Philadelphia.

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