Waterdogs have the gas industry upset!

I think it’s wonderful that our small group of watch dogs, otherwise know as “waterdogs”, has created such a stir! Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group has done such a wonderful job of putting this program together! Not only are they being recognized as an organization that has power by educating the local area residents (in the wake of DEP being given the slash and burn treatment by our state government) but also as a group that is so on-the-ball with the information they are making available to participants of the course, that the gas industry feels the need to criticize what they are doing in an attempt to make the Waterdog trainings appear limited and naive. The PA Oil and Gas Association spokesman in the article is doing exactly what any industry with a lot of black baggage would do. They love it when we feel powerless because their industry is, as he puts is, complicated and arcane, which it is…but it also doesn’t take a rock scientists to figure out most of what is going on as well as some of the industries dirty little secrets. Being a Waterdog doesn’t make anyone comparable to a DEP inspector but it does give area residents the opportunity to learn about what’s happening to their environment and take some care and control in what happens to the water and and other resources in PA. It also is a viable way for many more pairs of eyes to keep watch over the mass of wells that have been drilled in such a short time span that the DEP is struggling to keep up with monitoring all of them.
I just wanted to update this post and add this note. ALL calls to DEP are confidential and the right of every citizen! I just spoke with a friend who works in that office and she and I both want to make sure that the folks in PA understand that. SO please call DEP if you have a need to or if you have questions and be comfortable that your concerns and/or information will remain private.
by Laura Legere (Staff Writer)
Published: December 1, 2009

A small watershed protection group has drawn the disdain of the state’s natural gas industry by offering a training program to help citizens in Northern Pennsylvania learn how to document and report potential environmental violations at Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling sites.

The Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, based in Tioga County, will hold its second two-hour training session Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Pennsylvania College of Technology campus near Wellsboro.

The “waterdogs” program is meant to teach citizens in Susquehanna, Bradford and Tioga counties how to monitor waterways and well sites in the midst of a rapid expansion of gas drilling. It is also aimed at supplementing the oversight of the Department of Environmental Protection, which has struggled to fill all 17 oil and gas positions in its northcentral regional office.

In publicity materials about the event, the group called DEP’s permitting and inspection process “very rigorous” but said the staff is outnumbered by the many out-of-state gas contractors that are “not yet familiar with our regulations regarding water usage, erosion and sedimentation, and waste disposal.

“The region is too large and the resources of the regulators too limited to effectively keep track of the exponential growth in activity taking place,” the group said.

Reaction from the state’s natural gas industry ranged from disbelief to derision.

The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association posted news of the event on its Web site under the headline, “Environmental vigilante training to help enforce Marcellus drilling regs.”

“In just two hours you can learn all you need to know to be an environmental vigilante and help protect our watersheds from Marcellus gas drillers,” the post said.

On his “Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Law Blawg,” Meadville-based oil and gas attorney Russell L. Schetroma called the event “amazing.”

“Hopefully the participants, the sponsor and the college have insurance to cover the damages operators suffer from spurious claims of environmental damage made by graduates of the program,” he wrote.

Stephen Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, said his post was meant to be “tongue-in-cheek,” but the production of natural gas in the state and its regulation are “very serious issues.”

“To act like you’re going to make someone competent as a DEP inspector with two hours of training for issues as complicated and arcane as these… is a little naive and a little dangerous,” he said.

He also said the volunteers risk creating more work for DEP, rather than helping its staff, “by reporting things that aren’t in fact a problem.”

DEP investigates all complaints that fall under the department’s jurisdiction.

But Ron Comstock, president of the headwaters group, said the goal is precisely to limit the amount of unsubstantiated complaints filed with DEP by people who do not know what to look for.

“In the absence of some responsible programs like this, they’re going to have just tons of that,” he said.

The group encourages people to be aware of the drilling as it expands in the region. “Maybe they’ll see something that’s not right,” he said, “and with some training, they’ll know what to do.”

The group also emphasizes water quality monitoring in streams where it already has strong baseline data so it can track signs of leaks or spills, he said. Similar community monitoring has been recommended at public meetings by water quality specialists with the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Mr. Comstock said his group hopes to start a training movement that will spread to other watershed groups around the state.

“We stress safety,” he said. “If there’s anything we can do to make a bad experience something better and safer, that’s what we hope to do.”

Contact the writer: llegere@timesshamrock.com