Marcellus Shale

The Markell Mystery: Why Is He Holding the DRBC Hostage?

Peter WynnePeter Wynne
Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance

Back in mid November, when the Delaware River Basin Commission was getting ready to consider adoption of its draft natural gas development regulations, one of the commission members, the governor of Delaware, signaled he was going to vote no, and the whole business screeched to a halt.

Halted that business remains, and more than three months later the real reason why remains unclear.

In a letter dated Nov. 17, 2011, Gov. Jack A. Markell wrote to his fellow commissioners — the governors of New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania and the representative of the Army Corps of Engineers, explaining why he intended to vote against the regulations.

Gov Markell

Delaware Governor Jack A. Markell

Markell’s letter detailed his thinking on several pollution-related issues, and he summed up his concerns this way: “By far, the single most important issue for a downstream state like Delaware is whether the [gas] wells are being drilled, constructed, and operated in a manner that adequately protects our public and private water supplies.”

What he didn’t mention is that whatever regulations the DRBC might adopt, they would have no effect on Delaware’s water supplies.

Delaware draws its drinking water from ground and surface sources, and this is detailed on a webpage maintained by the state’s Water Resources Agency at the University of Delaware. The page is captioned “Delaware Facts About Water.”

Tiny Delaware has just three counties lined up north to south and, by the time the Delaware River reaches the state’s northernmost county, New Castle, the river has already become a brackish tidal estuary. Further south, as the river reaches Delaware Bay and the bay reaches the Atlantic Ocean, the water gets saltier still.

According to the state webpage, New Castle draws 25 percent of it drinking water from wells and the remainder from surface sources — the Christina River and three tributary creeks, the Brandywine, the Red Clay and the White Clay. The Brandywine joins the Christina at Wilmington at a point about a mile upstream from where the Christina empties into the Delaware. The White Clay Creek is a tributary of the Christina, and the Red Clay Creek is a tributary of the White Clay.

The point is that wherever New Castle County actually takes up its drinking water, the intake sites have to be well upstream of the Delaware River, unreached by anything its waters may contain. The county has no desalination plants that would allow intake of brackish water.

Over the years, Delaware and its biggest city, Wilmington, have considered building desalination facilities, but have yet to act. And one can well understand why. Desalination plants are pricey. Estimates made ten years or further back put the cost of building such a facility there at $20 million to $40 million.

The cost of electricity to run these plants would have been hundreds of thousands of dollars per day a decade ago, and disposing of the concentrated brine produced by the filtration process would also have been a costly proposition.

Delaware’s middle and southernmost counties, Kent and Sussex, rely on water wells exclusively, according to the state webpage. Kent fronts on the tidal zone of the river and, in its southern reaches, on Delaware Bay. Sussex fronts on the bay and, below Lewes, on the Atlantic Ocean.

If wells in those two counties were affected by those waters, which are very salty, what’s called salt-water intrusion would have turned them undrinkable years ago. And if the salt hasn’t gotten through to those wells, the same will be true for any dissolved chemicals that might come down the river into the bay.

Now, it is true that most of the 325-square-mile Brandywine Watershed actually lies in Pennsylvania, and Delaware could be affected by the commonwealth’s gas-well regulations, but that watershed lies exclusively in Pennsylvania’s Chester and Lancaster Counties, which are not underlain by the Marcellus Shale and seem to be no one’s target for natural-gas development.

It could be that Gov. Markell is pressing Pennsylvania to upgrade its natural-gas regulations to protect the Brandywine Watershed, but that would seem an unnecessary precaution, and whatever rules the DRBC adopts they’ll have no effect on the Brandywine. For some reason, however, Gov. Markell is holding Pennsylvania hostage over the DRBC vote.

It would seem unlikely that Gov. Markell doesn’t know where his state gets its water. And that thought is thrown into doubt by the wording of his letter to his fellow governors. In it, he remarks that the Delaware River Basin (but not the river itself) “serves as the primary water supply source for at least two-thirds of Delaware’s citizens.”

Because the Christina River and its tributaries drain into the Delaware River, they’re part of the river-basin system. That’s beyond dispute, but the Christina and those creeks are upstream of the Delaware, and the fact remains that water — polluted or otherwise — doesn’t flow upstream.

Note: Peter Wynne is spokesman for the Northern Wayne Property Owners Alliance, which represents more than 1,500 landowning families and organizations and more than 100,000 acres, chiefly in northern Wayne and Susquehanna Counties. The Alliance can be found on the web at

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