Appalachian Basin

“At Least the Denizens of the Deep Get a Mention”

Last month numerous organizations and individuals submitted comments on the proposed Delaware River Basin Commission regulations for natural gas development.  None were as elegantly written or concise as those of the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance (NWPOA).  You can read for them yourself here, but suffice it to say these comments carve every bit of fat off the DRBC regulations and suggest precisely how they can be improved, drawing a sharp contrast with the anti-gas forces, who essentially tried running up the numbers by collecting form letters from metro area residents with little or nothing at stake.  NWPOA instead went into the details and illustrated, with great writing, how they could be corrected.  Here are some key excerpts:

The Section 7.2 definition of a “natural gas development project” is an example of the micromanagement typical of the regulations, which would include control over such items as tire washing of support vehicles and dust control on access roads, when the basic issue is one of erosion and sedimentation control, which is under the jurisdiction of the respective state environmental protection agencies in any case.

With a mere six words — “except as specified in Section 7.5” — the DRBC contradicts all its acknowledgements that the states have the right to regulate gas exploration and production activities within their respective borders. With the exception above, cited here, the commission declares itself above the states and all county and municipal governments and laws.

The definition also fails to quantify in any way the term “substantial effect.” One gets the feeling that many of the definitions the DRBC provides were borrowed from some earlier text that defined terms for young readers.

Attempting to impose a limit on forest clearing in the middle of a definition is deceptive and appears to be mostly an effort at getting the proverbial camel’s nose under the tent in matters of land use, which are properly under the jurisdiction of state and municipal governments. Moreover, the amount of forest clearing that gas drilling and production would involve would be minimal, likely less that one percent (1%) and, in any case, is a non-issue in Wayne County, where nearly all the gas drilling in the basin is likely to take place and where for half a century an average of nearly 1,000 acres a year has been added to our forest inventory.

This definition (of water body) is ludicrously all-inclusive, especially since these “water bodies” are then used as the basis for setback restrictions. With the proposed 500-foot setback combined with slope restrictions, practically nowhere in Wayne County would be acceptable for gas drilling. Moreover, if these restrictions are later applied to other areas of activity, as the DRBC seems determined to do, our communities will be destroyed and our region turned into a forest preserve by a form of seizure without compensation.

The Approval by Rule (ABR) provisions include no deadlines for DRBC actions, which is absolutely unacceptable. Deadlines on permit applications, for example, should be such that an application will be deemed approved if the DRBC fails to act upon it within a reasonable and clearly specified period of time. The Pennsylvania DEP, for example, has 45 days to act on a properly completed permit application.

The statement “thousands of natural gas projects are expected” begs the question, “Expected by whom?” Calculations done for the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance concluded that the numbers suggested by the DRBC in its presentations explaining the proposed regulations to the public overestimated the number of wells and well pads by a factor of 2 at the very least. Furthermore, the suggestion that roads, pipelines and compressor stations will entail “withdrawal, diversion, importation” etc. of water and have a substantial effect on the water resources of basin simply flies in the face of reason.

Particularly vexing to us is that the needs of those living outside the basin are considered while our need is not even mentioned. The DRBC expresses more concern for “instream living resources” than it does for us. At least the denizens of the deep get a mention. The “sparsely populated” explanation above says it all: Our future doesn’t matter because there aren’t many of us. There needs to be balance and consideration of our needs. The Compact calls for equitable apportionment of the basin’s resources.

Once again, the DRBC is intruding to no great purpose into an area more than adequately administered by the states. Stream quality in Wayne County has been improving constantly for years now as measured by objective standards. The only thing DRBC can accomplish with this provision is to force duplication of effort, make the permitting procedure even more complicated than it would be otherwise and muddy the jurisdictional waters. Unnecessary intrusions of this sort threaten to deprive the headwaters region of economic development and punish us because we have Special Protection Waters that in no small part are in that condition because we have been good stewards of the land.

The DRBC’s emphasis on protecting forest landscapes adds up to little more than an unobtrusive way of laying the groundwork to block natural gas development in the Upper Basin. One also wonders whether it’s prelude to a DRBC effort to stop timber harvesting in our region, a traditional livelihood here for more than a century and one of the few we have. Further, in terms of preventing erosion and sedimentation and removing potential contaminants from surface runoff and groundwater flows, pasture lands and brush patches can be highly effective, as a 2005 EPA study of riparian buffers details. And the forest’s superiority over grassland in taking up nitrogen is of minimal importance in an area like the Upper Basin, where dairy farming has nearly disappeared and so little of our land is used for crops like corn, which usually is grown with heavy applications of nitrogen-rich fertilizer.

And while it has been said before, it’s worth repeating here that we find it more than a bit dismaying that the needs of the residents of the Lower Basin and even of residents outside the basin receive consideration here, but no mention at all is made of our need in the economically depressed Upper Delaware Basin to develop our resources. Bucolic poverty provides little pleasure for those forced to live in it.

This (500 feet water body) setback requirement is completely unrealistic when combined with the DRBC’s slope restrictions and its all-inclusive definition of a water body as a natural or constructed landscape feature containing or conveying surface water on a permanent, seasonal, or intermittent basis, including 1) depressional features such as reservoirs, lakes, ponds, and embayments; 2) natural or constructed channels that convey flowing water such as streams, canals, ditches, and similar drainageways, and 3) wetlands.”  Practically nowhere in northern Wayne County lies outside this definition, which is so broad and vague it can be interpreted to include a depression in the middle of normally dry field that occasionally fills with rainwater. Assuming that a typical 5-acre well pad would be a square 475 feet on a side, a 500- feet buffer surrounding such a pad would require a 50 acre area free of any water bodies or wetlands as defined by the DRBC, a practical impossibility here. Indeed, calculations carried out by the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance suggest that only 0.5 percent of the land in northern Wayne County would meet the DRBC’s requirements.

There is more, much more, but you get the idea,  NWPOA has, especially with its “at least the denizens of the deep get a mention” comment honed in on the single largest flaw with the draft DRBC regulations – that the treat the residents of the upper Delaware River valley like potted plants whose interests are completely secondary to those of downstream water users.  This lack of balance and failure to consider the economic needs of the upper basin as a matter of importance is a fatal deficiency in the current draft, especially as compared to the work of its sister organization, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, which was able to strike that essential three years ago.  Whether the DRBC will be able to rise above this “young readers” piece of work and produce an acceptable set of regulations, remains to be seen, but, in the meantime, NWPOA has marked the path.  







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