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Yesterday I attended a public comment hearing before the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC).  The SRBC is an interstate agency responsible for making important water resource decisions affecting the Susquehanna River basin.  Comprised of appointees from Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and the Army Corps of Engineers, the SRBC met to receive comments on a series of proposed permit applications for water withdrawals intended for use in hydraulic fracturing operations.

This was a do-over meeting.  The first one, held December 15 in Wilkes-Barre, abruptly and improperly ended when a number of protesters shouted down the Commissioners as they moved for unilateral approval of all the permit applications without allowing for public comment.  The protests clearly rattled the SRBC commissioners.  Not used to such public outrage, the SRBC was left without the ability to neither conduct their business nor provide an opportunity for other advocates to speak.

The hearing room inside the Capitol building in Harrisburg, PA yesterday was filled to capacity.  Dozens of community members delivered very passionate testimony describing the acute consequences of allowing the frackers to poison their waters.  A number of other environmental organizations echoed the residents’ concerns.  Besides the direct environmental consequences, the SRBC’s decision on these permit applications has serious legal and political implications.

The main duty of the Commission is long-term management planning of water resources.  As part of their mandate, the SRBC has conducted a number of studies related to everything from acid mine impairment and pond management to agricultural uses and other water supply issues.  Plenty of examples abound for this kind of study- indeed it’s an integral part of their Compact.

This Compact also contemplates joint authority, policy coordination, and uniform standards among member states.  This mandate requires deference to the rules, regulations, and activities of New York and Maryland too, not just Pennsylvania.  New York has placed a moratorium on fracking while the state conducts their Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement and promulgates their associated rules and regulations.  New York’s look in to fracking fell short in several aspects including a comprehensive look at the potential public health impacts. But at least they conducted a study.

Maryland is currently in Phase II of their fracking study. Due on the Governor’s desk by August 1, Maryland will conduct a scientific study and propose best management practices for fracking activities in the Old Line State.  The Army Corps made a bold statement when facing a similar decision in their role as part of the nearby Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC).  Just before Thanksgiving, the DRBC met to consider allowing fracking within the Delaware basin.  Aware that nearly 10,000 fracking insurgents were scheduled to protest, the Army Corps joined the majority of the DRBC membership to cancel their vote.

Clearly, there is a growing consensus throughout the Marcellus region that a sober, comprehensive study on drilling impacts is warranted before allowing industry to ride roughshod over landowner rights and effected communities. Unfortunately, Pennsylvania dictates SRBC decisions.  The Commonwealth dominates the Commission; none of the SRBC representatives from New York or Maryland attended the hearing.

The time is now for the SRBC to fulfill its mandate.  Long-term planning, rather than shortsighted permit-by-permit determinations, is essential for managing an industry seeking so much from the Susquehanna.  The SRBC has done the right thing for listening to the concerns of the community.  Now they must side with them.      

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