A Tale of Two Watersheds

One would think, for all the recent public outcry, that the Delaware is the only river in Pennsylvania. So what if it’s the longest, free-flowing, un-dammed course of fresh water in North America? Who cares that a University of Delaware report concludes that the 330-mile long waterway generates $22 billion for the regional economy? There happens to be another, rather large, really important river in Pennsylvania – The Susquehanna.

Distinguished as 2011’s most endangered river of the year, this central PA watershed flows directly into the historically treasured Chesapeake Bay. The water quality in the Susquehanna’s two main branches was already beleaguered by coal, acid rain and abandoned mine drainage when horizontal hydraulic fracturing first boomed in 2008. Today, open to industrial shale gas drilling, the Susquehanna basin sees the most intensive hydro-fracking, gas treatment and transport activity in the state. This is why The Chesapeake Bay Foundation has been actively scrutinizing Marcellus shale gas development.

So how is the Susquehanna region doing? We know the roads are overwhelmed, the air sometimes stinks, noise and dust are pervasive. Gas flares illuminate the night sky. There have been seismic crews, large water withdrawals, chemical spills, blowouts, livestock deaths, traffic accidents, exploding compressor stations, and bentonite clay oozing into creekbeds. Police complaints are up, and so are STDs. Housing shortages and soaring rents are displacing longtime residents. Bromide levels in the river are rising, too, along with strenuous public opposition. One can’t help but wonder, what should those of us inhabiting the watershed next door learn from the Susquehanna basin fracking experience? And what can we do to help?

This Thanksgiving, I’m particularly grateful for the many activists who are leading this ever-expanding, deeply moral cause. More and more groups are joining the fight to keep “extreme fossil fuel extraction” out of Pennsylvania’s precious watersheds. I’m grateful to a new host of personal heroes, luminaries like Debra Winger, Mark Ruffalo, Josh Fox, Sandra Steingraber, Maya van Rossum, Tracy Carluccio, Winonah Hauter, Alison Rose Levy, John Quigley, Iris Bloom, abe, Peter Buckland, Gloria Forouzan and Faith Zerbe. Their work directly inspires the movement to safeguard public health, and advocate for basic human environmental rights. As Winger puts it, “It’s not just a threat to our watersheds, but to our foodshed.”

Yet, with governor Corbett putting so little stock in scientific study, then obtusely accusing environmentalists of disregarding science, and with a DEP Secretary intent upon accomodating gas drillers, Pennsylvania’s fractivists must take their victories where they may. As far as victories go, Monday’s subverted DRBC vote on gas drilling regulations was a big one. And, according to Fox, “It’s only the beginning. This is like the orchestra tuning itself up.

I’m thankful for the one frack-free watershed we have left. And I hope Susquehanna basin drillers won’t be disposing of their waste in our backyard anytime soon… Only it turns out, they already are. There are 87 waste facilities currently accepting and treating frack wastewater and solids in Pennsylvania, up from roughly zero four years ago. Two sites are located in Downingtown, PA in a sub-watershed of the Delaware River.

I guess we ought to be thankful for frack waste recycling technology now, too.

Licensed Frack Waste Treatment Facilities in Southeastern PA:
Waste Management of PA, Downingtown PA
US Environmental, Inc., Downingtown PA
[Source PA DEP, reported by www.marcellus-shale.us]

Stir the Pot
Why not raise the explosive topic of fracking at Thanksgiving dinner? If someone doubts the flaming faucet phenomena, tell them story of Dimock.

Long ago, shallow methane, the kind which ignites in water, was found in northern Pennsylvania. For generations, it remained a localized curiosity. One day, Cabot Oil & Gas began hydro-fracking nearby. Private water wells, in successful use for generations, turned murky with methane soon after. A building exploded. The methane had migrated. The company admitted their error, and began supplying water to homes within a nine-mile radius, the known affected area. They were fined by the PA DEP and told to stop drilling until they fixed the problems. Triple wellbore casings to the rescue! The industry now attributes the incident to a botched cement job. The PA DEP has advised residents to take shorter showers.

While the health effects of elevated methane in drinking water have never been studied, it is known that when you chlorinate water that’s been contaminated with methane you end up with disinfection by-products such as Trihalomethanes, or chloroforms, which are known to cause bladder and colon cancer. Not something we want in our tap water.

So, while you’re at it, turn down the thermostat, don your favorite sweater, and raise your water glass in a toast to the precious, life-sustaining rivers which nourish and connect us all.

UPDATES: I’ve been informed that those two Downingtown plants are most likely not receiving frack waste. If they are, and it’s in the basin, that is illegal. Let’s hope!
Maryland views fracking as an opportunity to learn from PA’s Mistakes. From The Baltimore Sun
“Marcellus shale: What took millions of years to create merits a few years of study”
Our view: O’Malley right to seek to avoid repeating Pennsylvania’s mistakes on hydraulic fracturing

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One Response to “A Tale of Two Watersheds”

  1. keeptapwatersafe Says:

    I received a poignant email from Rebecca Roter, and I hope she won’t mind that I’m sharing it:
    “Liz, as a resident of the Susquehanna Co, I include my neighbors directly impacted by shale extraction as personal heroes. Their ability to carry on living in a gasfield and maintaining grace and dignity is inspiring. Not all can advocate themselves as that is NOT traditionally part of rural PA culture. My neighbors are my heroes and they inspire me to stay and stand witness for and with them. I do not diminish the contributions that celebrities like Mark Ruffalo and Deborah Winger might make to helping my Susquehanna Watershed community, but ultimately we are left to help each other and luminaries and reporters ultimately leave us behind.”

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