EARTHWORKS

Corbett’s Marcellus Shale Panel Gets Earful

Gov. Tom Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission in PA hears from citizens.

The Street | Marc Levy

April 28, 2011
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HARRISBURG, Pa. (AP)  Gov. Tom Corbett's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission heard from dozens of sometimes angry residents Wednesday who said they are worried that the booming natural gas industry is harming public health and destroying the environment, and that the commission will do nothing to change that.

At its second meeting, the commission, which was created to find ways to maximize the economic potential of the massive Marcellus Shale natural gas formation while protecting the environment, listened to several briefings on environmental impacts while demonstrators gathered in a noisy rally outside.

The commission head, Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, later extended the half-hour public comment period by an hour and a half so that many of the demonstrators could speak.

They did so sometimes in angry, off-color terms that accused the industry of spreading pollution and illness and Corbett of being in league with money-hungry energy executives.

Afterward, Cawley said the willingness of the commission — made of up energy-sector executives, Corbett appointees and representatives of local government, business and environmental advocacy groups — to listen to the comments backed up its devotion to openness and transparency.

"Anytime I hear that people are concerned about their health and safety, as I've said often ... Tom Corbett and I firmly believe that the first, best duty of government is public safety," Cawley told reporters. "So we want to make sure the public health, the public safety and the public's welfare remain protected."

Asked whether he believes the speakers represented a majority opinion in Pennsylvania, Cawley said, "What I believe is that the people that were here today felt passionately about the issues that they presented."

Some made claims that are not backed by science or fact, but all of it will be considered by the commission, Cawley said.

One of the first speakers, Trevor Walczak, said the industry's leasing money flowing into Susquehanna County in northeastern Pennsylvania is saving cash-strapped families from having to sell of portions of their land to real-estate developers. Walczak and his family, who operate a sawmill, have several hundred acres of land under lease.

Charles Gerlach, who operates an organic farm and bed and breakfast in neighboring Bradford County close to the New York state line, said the heavy impact of drilling is driving some of his fellow farmers out and making him worry that his own business will suffer.

"All around me, I see development and I see environmental damage, and I'm very concerned about it," Gerlach said.

Mike Melnyk of Canonsburg in heavily drilled southwestern Pennsylvania posed what he described as a taste test to the commission members.

"Would you want your family members to drink the water in these places in Washington County that are highly contaminated? Because people will, and they do," Melnyk said.

The Marcellus Shale formation lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Drilling for gas in deep shale deposits is emerging as a major source of energy that supporters say is homegrown, cheap and more environmentally friendly than coal or oil.

Such drilling requires injecting huge volumes of water underground to help shatter the rock. Some of that water returns to the surface tainted with metals, trace radioactivity and small amounts of toxic chemicals injected by the drilling companies.

Most big gas states require drillers to dump their wastewater deep into the earth to prevent it from contaminating surface water. Though it has moved to limit it, Pennsylvania still allows hundreds of millions of gallons of the partially treated drilling wastewater to be discharged into rivers from which communities draw drinking water.

Nadia Steinzor of the Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy group Earthworks, told the commission that it is losing public confidence because of the perceived focus on short-term gains in jobs and revenue, rather than the long-term impact on tourism, local government budgets, public health and the environment.

"The main concern that I think many people have is nobody knows what the plan here is. ... Twenty thousand wells? Fifty thousand wells? A hundred thousand wells?" she said. "No one, no state agency, has ever done a cumulative impact analysis."

The commission is to meet again in May and Corbett has asked it to report its findings by August.

Tagged with: pennsylvania, oil and gas, marcellus, fracking, drilling

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