Interstate river basin commissions are based on noble values: sharing resources, not polluting neighbors downstream, and planning so water resources aren’t sucked dry. Then again, ideas are only as good as the people who make them reality.
When it comes to Marcellus Shale gas development, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC)—responsible for coordinating water resources among Maryland, New York, and Pennsylvania—seems to have forgotten their job. Fortunately, residents and organizations are increasingly ready and eager to remind them—including at a meeting on December 15 at which the SRBC green-lighted lax regulations and two dozen water withdrawal permits for the gas industry.
The Commissioners may have expected business as usual; attendees gave them anything but. Many who spoke protested the way the Commission had glossed over major flaws in the regulations—which generated hundreds of public comments and are detailed in a letter signed by more than 40 organizations. Yet the Commissioners proceeded to approve the regulations unanimously, without any debate.
Then during the Commission presentation of water withdrawal permit applications, objections by some members of the audience grew so hot that the meeting was completely disrupted. The Commissioners must have been overwhelmed by the kerfuffle—how else to explain their quickly adjourning, leaving, returning, and plumb forgetting their own rules and duties?
And thus 22 permits were approved—but as a letter from seven environmental groups (including Earthworks) points out, in such an improper manner that the vote may be legally ineffective.
Evidence is mounting of pollution by gas development in Pennsylvania, the Susquehanna River is already at risk, and federal and state officials continue to wrestle with the impairment of the Chesapeake Bay (which gets half its freshwater from the Susquehanna). Yet just like every other agency and state government, the SRBC doesn’t have a plan. It hasn’t considered how much water will be needed or how much waste will be created over time, or when there are so many more waste pits, compressor stations, pipelines, and other damaging tools of the gas development trade.
Maryland Attorney General Douglas Gansler summed up the situation in a letter to the SRBC asking that the proposed regulations be shelved, in effect reminding the agency that more than Pennsylvania’s gas rush is at stake: “At the same time that Maryland, New York, and the federal government are urging restraint and greater regulation, the SRBC appears to be moving in a different direction…the SRBC should be increasing public scrutiny of hydrofracturing withdrawals, not relaxing it.”
Exactly. Right now, we can at least look forward to far greater scrutiny of the SRBC itself. And hopefully after what happened last week, the Commissioners are more awake to growing concerns over drilling—and the fact that, just like a mighty river, they’re gathering strength as they flow.