Stringent regulations that currently protect water quality in a large area of the Delaware River Basin, encompassing most of Wayne County, will also apply to natural gas drilling operations, according to an order issued by the Delaware River Basin Commission’s executive director on Tuesday.
Since 1992, the federally mandated commission has designated a substantial portion of its jurisdiction as “special protection waters” - rivers, streams and creeks within it cannot be ruined or exhausted through unnatural means.
The designation covers almost all of Wayne County, besides a small slice on its western edge, since its waters drain into the Delaware River, a federally recognized “wild and scenic river.”
And although it has long been known that the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) would regulate and require permitting for drilling activity in its jurisdiction, the order lets it be known that drilling activity cannot cause a “measurable impact” to water quality and that a myriad of regulations within the “special protection waters” area must be abided by.
This includes preventing site runoff, or other contamination that degrades waterways.
DRBC Spokesperson Clarke Rupert said the order clarifies the commission’s position in regards to how it would regulate natural gas drilling.
The commission has been mulling over its regulatory framework for this new industry in the Commonwealth over the past year.
The intent of the order is not to stop the natural gas industry from burgeoning here, he noted, but rather to ensure that it does not negatively impact a watershed that provides drinking water to nearly 15 million people.
“This isn’t a stop sign that the drilling can’t take place,” said Rupert in a phone interview with The Wayne Independent on Wednesday. “Our intention is not to put up road blocks.”
Representatives of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association were not available for comment.
A representative of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, a large property owners group that is seeking to have its land drilled, was also unavailable for comment.
The order would apply to both horizontal and vertical hydraulic fracturing - a process that busts open rock with fluid to release natural gas - in any shale formation where natural gas may reside.
Essentially, it raises the bar to ensure that “high water quality” remains as is.
Other industrial activities have also fallen under this designation and its rules since 1992.
“The DRBC is closing a loophole drillers could use ... as there are often shallower natural gas formations above the Marcellus Shale,” said Brady Russell, a director with Clean Water Action, a state environmental advocacy group. “This is an important determination by DRBC and will help to fill the gap in regulations related to gas drilling activities and their impact on water usage and water pollution.
New methods of drilling for natural gas use large volumes of water, along with the use of chemicals, to extract natural gas.
The order is temporary, however.
“The commissioners intend to adopt regulations ... after public notice and a full opportunity for public comment, but this rulemaking process can be lengthy,” said executive director Carol R. Collier in a statement. “In the meantime, DRBC will apply this” order.
It would additionally cover all aspects of natural gas operations, including proper permitting for water withdrawals and sewage treatment facilities that accept wastewater from natural gas operations.
Natural gas companies operating in Pennsylvania also must attain drilling permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection.
The commission is currently reviewing two permit applications in Wayne County: a natural gas drill site in Clinton Township and a water withdrawal request from the West Branch of the Lackawaxen River in Clinton Township.
There appears to be no producing natural gas wells in Wayne County, as of Wednesday, according to agency records.
Any person affected by this decision can request a hearing by submitting a request in writing to the commission secretary within 30 days of the date of the order.