The Senate Democratic Policy Committee Thursday held a hearing in Erie on environmental and recreational impacts related to developing gas drilling, with a focus on concerns in the Lake Erie watershed and Northwestern region of Pennsylvania.
The hearing, chaired by Sen. Lisa Boscola (D-Lehigh) and requested by Sen. Sean Wiley (D-Erie), focused on gas drilling threats to the watershed ranging from clean water withdrawal to wastewater issues.
“We need to make responsible and measured decisions about where we can expand – as well as where we should limit – the presence, growth and impact of gas drilling,” said Sen. Boscola. “Land owners, local communities and critical watershed regions like Lake Erie cannot take a back seat to company profits.”
At the end of the hearing, Sen. Wiley said he plans to introduce legislation putting a moratorium on natural gas development in Lake Erie until as study is completed on its potential impacts.
“The Lake Erie watershed is a prime destination for anglers and hunters,” Sen. Wiley said. “It is imperative that we take the necessary steps to protect and preserve this pristine resource that has been so important to our region for so long.”
He added hundreds of thousands of people fish the Ohio and Pennsylvania portions of Lake Erie, which overlie much of the Utica shale gas formation.
While agreeing that the economic and job benefits of gas drilling are significant, Sen. Wiley cautioned that huge water withdrawals from the watershed, threats of wastewater pollution and well integrity issues could alter stream flows, threaten steelhead fishing and encourage the introduction of invasive species in the region.
John Walliser, Senior Vice President for Legal & Government Affairs for the PA Environmental Council, will present testimony at the hearing outlining several key concerns.
“Pennsylvania already bears a tremendous pollution legacy from past resource extraction, and the burden of that legacy falls on all citizens and communities of the Commonwealth,” said Walliser. “Other states have already demonstrated that robust protections and industry vitality can go hand in hand – there is no reason why Pennsylvania can’t achieve both of those goals.
“We believe there is a clear path forward with proposed rulemaking by the Department and other efforts underway in the Commonwealth, but those efforts require support by the General Assembly. As a trustee of our public resources on behalf of all Pennsylvanians, we urge you to help meet that opportunity,” Walliser said.
He specifically mentioned these issues in his testimony--
-- Urging support for DEP’s final Chapter 78 and 78a drilling regulations;
-- The need to regulate water withdrawals used by the drilling industry, pointing out the Ohio River basin does not have the kind of controls on withdrawals as does Lake Erie and the Susquehanna and Delaware rivers basins;
-- The need to identify abandoned and orphaned wells and properly plug them as new wells are drilled;
-- Proper management of drilling wastes, both liquid and solids, to protect the environment;
-- The need to avoid habitat fragmentation in the build out of the infrastructure and pipelines needed to produce the wells;
-- Ensure the proper regulation of methane emissions from natural gas production facilities; and
-- Redefine conventional oil and gas well drilling not based on the technologies used not what geologic formations are being drilled into.
A copy of Walliser’s testimony is available online.
Also presenting testimony were--
-- Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper;
-- Marsha Haley, medical doctor (radiation oncology);
-- Sister Pat Lupo, Benedictine Sisters, Environmental Education and Advocacy of Erie County;
-- Ryan Grode, SWPA Environmental Health Project; and
-- John Rossi, PA State Chapter of the Sierra Club.
Erie County Executive Kathy Dahlkemper said she cannot support gas drilling in the Erie watershed because there are too many risks to “our health, public safety and to the beautiful resource that is Lake Erie.
Pointing to devastating natural gas explosions around the state, Dahlkemper asked, “How much risk is too much risk? We have a duty to protect the Lake Erie watershed and a responsibility to protect this freshwater resource that provides drinking water for tens of thousands of people, has generated $980 million in tourism and provides some of the best fishing in the nation.”
Dr. Marsha Haley, who serves as an assistant professor of radiation oncology at the University of Pittsburgh, pointed to studies indicating that leaching of drilling wastewater can affect the chemical composition of streams and adversely impact water ecosystems and watershed wildlife.
She also pointed to separate studies in Washington County, Southwestern Pennsylvania and Northeastern Pennsylvania indicating that people who live closer to well sites experience a greater incidence of health problems ranging from respiratory and heart symptoms to lower birth weight.
Representatives from the oil and gas drilling industry were invited to testify, but declined to attend.
“This hearing shouldn’t be an argument that pits drillers against preservationists, job creators against environmentalists, and the state’s energy sector against health and community interests,” Sen. Boscola said. “To me, our task isn’t about taking sides. It’s about finding a balance.”
Senators Boscola and Wiley were joined on the Senate panel by Senate Democratic Leader Jay Costa (D-Allegheny) and Sen. Jim Brewster (D-Allegheny).For more information, visit the Senate Democratic Policy Committee webpage.