By Patriot-News Op-Ed
November 14, 2009
by Robert Pennell, secretary of the Pennsylvania Council of Trout Unlimited
They call it the “Pennsylvania Wilds,” more than 6 million acres of relatively unspoiled forests and mountains in 12 northern Pennsylvania counties.
The area has long been known for its remnants of virgin forests, pristine mountain streams, abundant wildlife and magnificent vistas. More than 2 million of those acres are public land, an area equivalent to the acreage occupied by Yellowstone National Park.
Today, however, if you were to visit this part of our commonwealth, you would be greeted by a different environment. You would find a proliferation of new roads being cut into the forests, with semis and tanker trucks hauling tons of heavy equipment and water to remote destinations.
Not since the heyday of heavy timbering has there been such an assault on our northern forests.
This is all about the natural gas being extracted from a widespread geological formation known as Marcellus Shale....
Unfortunately, we already have witnessed significant negative environmental impacts resulting from the activities of several drilling companies that either chose not to follow the rules or were simply careless in the execution of their efforts.
In the development of a typical Marcellus gas well, an access road must first be constructed or an existing forest road must be improved to handle the heavy truckloads of equipment and water. Next, about 5 acres of forest must be destroyed to make room for a well pad and water retention pond.
Millions of gallons of water must then be hauled to the site for the fracking operation, which also requires the addition of several potentially toxic chemicals. After the fracking operation is complete, the contaminated water flows back to the surface where it must be treated before discharged into a receiving river or stream.
So why should we be concerned over these activities? Construction of roads and pad sites can cause erosion and sedimentation pollution in some of our highest-quality streams. Excessive water withdrawals from smaller streams can result in the loss of aquatic life. Inadequate liner materials in wastewater retention ponds can result in contaminants leaching into groundwater, and more and better off-site treatment plants are needed to handle the ever-increasing volumes of contaminated frack water.
With this in mind, the state Department of Environmental Protection has seemingly shot itself in the foot when it comes to protecting our natural environment from the inevitable problems of rapidly escalating gas extraction activities.
This year, DEP made the decision to dismiss the county conservation districts as the watchdogs over local construction activities, and then instituted a fast-track permitting rule whereby construction plans would no longer be subjected to scrutiny by DEP, as long as the plans are certified by a registered engineer.
This practice already has proved itself ineffective in a recent case in which the DEP-approved engineer’s plans failed to include some of the most basic measures to control erosion and sedimentation at several well sites.Then there’s the major issue of our state legislators failing to impose a gas severance tax that could pump much-needed General Fund capital into the state coffers and provide a funding source to help pay for future environmental mishaps.
Gov. Rendell proposed such a tax in June to help balance the state budget, but he later backed down. Although every other major natural gas-producing state imposes a severance tax on gas extraction, it is relevant to note that more than $1 million was spent this year by oil and gas lobbyists to help defeat this tax in Pennsylvania.
When the state budget was finally passed, the agencies that suffered the largest cutbacks are the same agencies we depend on to oversee the health of our natural environment: DEP and DCNR.Now more than ever, it is imperative that our legislators support and pass a gas severance tax that allocates a substantial percentage to our environmental programs. We must keep the “wild” in Pennsylvania Wilds.
Original posting: HERE.