Public Supports Rules for Drillers

By DAVID THOMPSON – dthompson@sungazette.com

POSTED: December 17, 2009

More than 100 people turned out Wednesday for a public hearing regarding a Department of Environmental Protection proposal to set more stringent treatment standards on wastewater primarily associated with the natural gas industry.

The hearing was hosted by the state Environmental Quality Board and moderated by Patrick Henderson, executive director of the state Senate Environmental Resources and Energy Committee.

Of the approximately 20 people who testified at the hearing, held at the DEP’s Northcentral Regional Office in Williamsport, most were either in favor of the proposed standards or advocated even stricter or wider-reaching standards.

Two who testified said they believed current discharge standards are adequate.

The proposal would impose restrictions on the amount of total dissolved solids – or TDS – sulfate and chloride that can be discharged by a treatment plant into a waterway.

It also regulates levels of barium and strontium that can be discharged from wastewater specifically from the natural gas industry.

Deb Nardone of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited spoke in favor of the proposed standards, calling it “a necessary tool” for the DEP to use to protect the state’s fresh water resources.

Nardone suggested that more stringent regulations may be needed in the future, but in the meantime, the ones proposed should be “in place as soon as possible.”

Anne Harris Katz of Fairfield Township said she and her husband were drawn to the area almost 20 years ago but now questions whether the move was a good choice.

Katz said she fears the gas industry will change the region’s “pristine environment, small-town atmosphere and the confidence that residents’ health and safety are adequately protected from the short- and long-term hazards of gas drilling and extraction.”

“The proposed new standards will decrease the amount of pollution, and in this instance, less is better,” Katz said.

Her husband, Harvey M. Katz, said the gas industry should bear the cost of treating its wastewater, not the public.

He added that water polluted by gas industry wastewater will impact the area’s aquatic life.

Nathan Sooy of Clean Water Action, which represents a consortium of environmental and watershed groups, spoke passionately about the impact gas industry wastewater could have on local waterways.

Sooy said the DEP proposal “will go a long way towards ensuring our drinking water supplies will not have unsafe levels of (TDS)” and urged the agency not to weaken the proposed discharge standards.

Sooy added that the rules should be put in place as soon as possible, that no drilling permits be issued until that happens and that discharge standards should be applied to other materials found in gas drilling wastewater.

City resident John Bogle said the gas industry will prove harmful to the state’s tourism industry, the Pennsylvania Wilds initiative, agriculture and property values.

Bogle suggested the industry could adversely impact the area in ways similar to the coal industry.

“A trip through the coal regions will show what pollution from an unregulated extractive industry can do to the economic future of a region.”

“The DEP’s proposed TDS strategy is a solid move in the right direction,” he said. “The DEP needs to stick to its guns.”

Jerry S. Walls, former director of the county planning department, said it is “vitally important for Pennsylvania to have effective policy standards for the discharge of total dissolved solids.”

According to Walls, clean water is as essential to a healthy environment and positive quality of life.

“Our groundwater, rivers and streams should not be viewed as easy, unlimited waste disposal systems,” he said.

Walls said he was involved in the planning, design and development of the Lycoming County landfill. The DEP has specific standards regarding the control of leachate from the landfill. However, frac water flowback impoundment lagoons at drilling sites “have no such standards” which ‘equals preferential regulatory treatment of the natural gas industry,” he said.

Walls lauded the industry’s efforts to recycle gas drilling wastewater, adding the proposed TDS standards would provide incentives to continue that practice.

John Tewksbury, a kindergarten teacher from Muncy, said he attended the meeting on behalf of his students who wanted him to speak in support of the regulations.

Tewksbury said the students were concerned with the impact pollution could have on rivers and streams.

F. Alan Sever, an engineer from Montoursville who worked for the DEP, said the Environmental Quality Board determined in 2001 that there “was no reason to assign statewide effluent limitations for total dissolved solids, chloride or sulfate.”

Sever said that except for isolated incidents on specific streams, the DEP has not shown that there is any reason to change that policy.

If the agency finds specific problem areas, it could assign “site specific” discharge limits at those sites, he said.

Sever also took issue with the cut-off date – April 1, 2009 – for when dischargers would fall under the new guidelines and those that would be gandfathered under the previous guidelines.

By grandfathering treatment facilities already causing problems and assigning stringent limits to those that did nothing to create a problem is unfair, he said.

He also cited an example of a discharge permit issued to a company several days prior to the cut-off day and suggested the permit was issued “in order to protect this company from having to meet these new limits.”

Ned Wheeler, president of Keystone Clear Water Solution Inc., said the oil and gas industry has been in Pennsylvania for 100 years and has a history of cooperation with regulatory agencies.

Wheeler said the proposed regulations are “unrealistic and unreasonable” and do not take into account regulations already in place.

According to the DEP, the expected results of the new rules would be to prevent the water quality issues that came to light in 2008 on the Monongahela River and ensure that the cost of treating gas industry-generated wastewater will not be borne by customers of drinking water systems.

In the fall of 2008, the river flow fell and concentrations of TDS, which mostly is salt, and sulfate in the river rose to historic highs.

According to the agency, the West Branch of the Susquehanna River and Moshannon Creek have a limited capacity for handling new loads of TDS and sulfate.

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