Pennsylvania Fracking Rally Calls for Better Regulation, Tax on Drilling

Pennsylvanians worried about gas drilling in the state’s Marcellus shale rallied in Harrisburg yesterday, demanding better regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in the state. According to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, the rally attendees were pushing the state’s legislature to approve several fracking bills before they recess in mid-October.

Hydraulic fracturing involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. The chemicals that make up that fracking fluid are cause for concern. They may include, among other things, barium, strontium, benzene, glycol-ethers, toluene, 2-(2-methoxyethoxy) ethanol, and nonylphenols. All have been linked to health disorders when human exposure is too high. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act, so drillers don’t have to disclose what is contained in their fracking fluids.

Pennsylvania’s gas-rich Marcellus shale has brought drillers to the state in droves. Unfortunately, the state’s current oil and gas regulations were written for shallow wells, not the deep wells and millions of gallons of fracking fluid employed in Marcellus drilling. Pennsylvania officials are now working to improve those regulations, but the drilling industry – which claims to be in favor of better oversight – is deeply involved in the overhaul.

According to the Post-Gazette, those attending yesterday’s rally in the state capital want Pennsylvania lawmakers to pass one bill that would impose a tax on gas extracted from the hundreds of wells around the state, another that would direct state environmental officials to more closely monitor the effect of drilling on streams and underground water, and a third bill that would impose a one-year moratorium on drilling any new wells. The tax could generate $100 million to be split among state agencies and municipalities that are facing higher costs related to gas drilling, the Post-Gazette said.

Pennsylvania has seen several incidents of water contamination that may be linked to fracking. Perhaps the most well-known occurred in the Susquehanna County town of Dimock, near the New York border. There, problems with the cement casing on 20 wells drilled by Cabot Oil & Gas have caused contamination of local water wells, driving down property values and causing sickness. Levels of methane in some Dimock water wells are so high that homeowners are able to set water aflame as it comes out of their taps.

In October 2009, state regulators finally acknowledged that a major contamination of the aquifer had occurred. In addition to methane, dangerously high levels of iron and aluminum were found in some wells. Fifteen Dimock residents whose wells were contaminated are now suing Cabot.

One Dimock resident, Victoria Switzer, attended yesterday’s rally. According to the Post-Gazette, Switzer said she said the water that came from her well turned “bubbly, smelly and foamy” and was undrinkable last summer after Cabot started drilling nearby. Recently, other chemicals, such as ethyl benzene, xylene and toluene have shown up in her water. While Cabot denies its drilling has anything to do with Switzer’s water problems, it is paying to supply her family and 22 others with bottled drinking water.

Other Pennsylvania residents have reported similar problems. Earlier this month, for example, 13 families from Susquehanna County’s Lenox Township – just10 miles from Dimock – filed suit against another driller, Houston, Texas-based Southwest Energy Production Company, for allegedly allowing a fracking operation to contaminate their water wells. At least one person, an infant, has become physically ill, and exhibits neurological symptoms consistent with toxic exposure to heavy metals. The other families live in constant fear of future physical illness, particularly with respect to the health of their minor children and grandchildren, the lawsuit said.

According to the lawsuit, Southwest Energy Production Company was negligent in the drilling, construction and operation of a gas well located near where the families live, and allowed pollutants, including fracking fluid, to be discharged into the ground or into the waters near Plaintiffs’ homes and water wells. The lawsuit further alleges that the composition of fracking fluid includes hazardous chemicals that are carcinogenic and toxic. As a result, the families have been and continue to be exposed to hazardous chemicals, including barium, manganese and strontium.

“The fracking fluid leaked into the aquifer and contaminated wells within several thousand feet, if not more,” Peter Cambs, an attorney with <"">Parker Waichman Alonso LLP, one of the firms representing the families, recently told the Associated Press.

Earlier this month, Pennsylvania environmental officials ordered another driller, Chesapeake Energy Corp., to inspect the well casings of 171 natural-gas wells in the state after methane was found to leaking from six wells in Bradford County. According to a statement from the Department of Environmental Protection, it received reports of bubbling water on the Susquehanna River on September 2. Both the agency and Chesapeake believe the culprit is gas migrating from six wells that are located on three well pads on the “Welles property,” which is approximately two to three miles northwest of the river, the statement said. The six wells in question were not yet being fracked, though they had been drilled. The drilling occurred between December 2009 and March 2010.

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