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First State joins other Delaware River Basin states to permanently ban fracking

Delaware Public Media

Gov. John Carney joined three other Delaware River Basin governors Thursday in permanently banning fracking for natural gas in the region.

In a vote hailed by fracking opponents as the historic outcome of a decade-long campaign, the Delaware River Basin Commission formalized an existing de facto ban on the controversial process of harvesting natural gas in the basin.

But the governors of Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania deferred a decision on also banning the transfer of fracking-related water in and out of the basin – measures that have also been sought by environmental groups seeking a total ban on fracking and related activities.

The governors, acting as commissioners for the interstate water regulator, instructed its executive director, Steve Tambini, to propose a new rule on the import and export of water from the region, a measure that will then be put out for public comment.

Gov. Carney, the current chairman of the commission, said the ban will protect the health of millions of people in the basin who rely on it for drinking water.

“I welcome this opportunity to provide the fullest protection to the more than 13 million people who rely upon the Delaware River Basin’s waters for their drinking water,” Carney said in a statement read by Shawn Garvin, secretary of the Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control, who chaired a virtual 30-minute meeting.

"I welcome this opportunity to provide the fullest protection to the more than 13 million people who rely upon the Delaware River Basin's waters for their drinking water." - Delaware Gov. John Carney

Carney said the action complements the goals of the Delaware River Basin Conservation Act which he introduced when he was a Congressman, and which became law at the end of 2016. He said the act helps to ensure that the watershed is protected from potential pollution from the fracking industry.

The DRBC’s action will prevent development of the river basin – which stretches from upstate New York to the mouth of the Delaware Bay – by the natural gas industry which aggressively moved into neighboring Pennsylvania starting in the mid-2000s, and has been blamed for water contamination in some places.

Since the industry adopted hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” on an industrial scale, critics have charged it with endangering public health and industrializing the rural areas where well pads are built. As concerns about climate change have grown in recent years, critics have focused more on the industry’s continued production of fossil fuels and its leaks of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.

Although the commission didn’t cite climate change in its resolution on Thursday, it showed that it has accepted the fracking concerns voiced by critics for more than a decade.

“If commercially recoverable gas is present in the basin, and if high-volume hydraulic fracturing were to proceed in the basin, then spills and releases of hydraulic fracturing chemicals, fluids and wastewater would adversely impact surface water and ground water, and losses of well integrity would result in subsurface fluid including gas migration, impairing drinking water resources and other uses established in the comprehensive plan,” said the resolution.

The fluids “would contain salts, metals, radioactive elements, organic compounds, endocrine-disrupting and toxic chemicals, and chemicals for which toxicity has not been determined,” it said.

Concerns about the industry’s safety apply throughout the Delaware River watershed, including areas like Delaware where the industry is not active, said Coralie Pryde of the League of Women Voters of Delaware, a member of the Delaware River Frack Ban Coalition.

"When contaminated water is added anywhere in the Delaware watershed, it will eventually reach the Delaware Estuary and Bay." - League of Women Voters of Delaware's Coralie Pryde

“Toxic and radioactive elements can bioaccumulate in small aquatic species and enter the food chain, damaging the important fish, birds and sea mammals that make this area an economic powerhouse and a tourist attraction.”

While the DRBC’s vote was foreshadowed by earlier statements in support of a permanent ban by Gov. Carney and other commissioners, it was hailed by environmentalists as a major victory.

“This is a powerful moment,” said Maya van Rossum, leader of Delaware Riverkeeper Network, an environmental group that represents the whole watershed. “Our watershed governors and the president listened to the people and honored their commitments to protect us from the devastations of fracking in our watershed.”

Van Rossum said that while activists also sought an immediate ban on the import of frack waste from outside the basin and on the export of basin water to fracking operations elsewhere, she was confident that the DRBC will finalize that ban, too, in a few months’ time.

“While there will need to be more work on the wastewater and exports issue, today they did not approve it, said they would discourage it, and have a timeline pursuant to which we can secure a permanent ban in a matter of months,” she said after the vote. “I am confident we will be victorious in securing fully and complete protection because the science, facts and people are on our side.” 

But the vote was assailed by API-PA, an energy industry trade group, which called it “misguided” and said the DRBC didn’t have the legal authority to ban fracking.

“The DRBC’s blatant overreach is a missed opportunity to harness clean and abundant natural gas to power our state and nation,” said Stephanie Catarino Wissman, executive director of the trade group, in a statement.

The API argues that banning fracking does not meet the definition of a “project” that the DRBC is empowered to conduct under the terms of a 1961 Compact that governs its operation.

Asked whether API would be taking legal action against the DRBC, spokewoman Amy Richards said the trade group is reviewing Thursday’s decision.

And the Marcellus Shale Coalition, a Pittsburgh-based trade group for the natural gas industry, said the vote ignores scientific evidence that fracking is safe while “trampling” on private property rights.

“It may be a good day for those who seek higher energy prices for American consumers and a deeper dependence on foreign nations to fuel our economy, but this vote defies common sense, sound science, and is a grave blow to constitutionally protected private property rights,” said MSC president David Callahan.

"The DRBC's blatant overreach is a missed opportunity to harness clean and abundant natural gas to power our state and nation." - API-PA's Stephanie Catarino Wissman

He said the group is “extremely disappointed” with Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf for allying with “out of state interests” to support the ban, and he said an abstention by President Biden’s representative on the commission had done nothing to help.

Pryde of Delaware’s League of Women Voters said that although campaigners didn’t get everything they wanted from Thursday’s vote, she’s confident that a ban on water transfers will follow.

“We believe that the current wording on fracking-related operations, that exporting water and importing waste should be discouraged is very hopeful and suggests that these operations may be banned in the regulations put out in the fall,” she said, referring to the resolution. “We've presented plenty of information as to why fracking water can't be made safe by any current treatment protocol.”

Jon has been reporting on environmental and other topics for Delaware Public Media since 2011. Stories range from sea-level rise and commercial composting to the rebuilding program at Prime Hook National Wildlife Refuge and the University of Delaware’s aborted data center plan.
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