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Riverkeeper Strategy Depends on Obscure Reclassification of Streams

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by Tom Shepstone on EID

UPDATE: Subsequent to the filing of this post I received a message from Patrick Henderson, Energy Executive, Office of Governor Tom Corbett, challenging my characterization of Kelly Hefner’s role with respect to the Exceptional Value petition of the Delaware Riverkeeper.  Mr. Henderson assured me, in the course of a detailed discussion, that Heffner was only exercising an administrative duty, engaged in no advocacy whatsoever, and was fully in support of natural gas development within the Delaware River basin, under the condition that it’s done safely and responsibly.  I take him at his word.

There’s a move afoot to ruin the hopes, dreams and economic futures of some of the poorest residents of the Delaware River basin.  It’s being led by some of the wealthiest residents who happen to live downstate or out-of-state, even out-of-basin, who would like nothing better than to depopulate the upper basin and save it as a playground for themselves, with total disregard for the aspirations and needs of those of us who actually have to make a living here.

The Delaware Riverkeeper, out of the Philadelphia area, is spearheading the campaign.  It proposes to upgrade the stream classification of the river to one called “Exceptional Value,” which sounds great — but in practice would have a devastating effect on any development within the upper basin, including natural gas exploration.  It would also conveniently lower property values for those with designs on acquiring much of this land.  It’s a case of backdoor bureaucratic manipulation.  The Riverkeeper, which might better be called the Rivercreeper for the manner in which it operates and its desires to expand control over anyone living north of the Delaware Water Gap, is marshaling the support of like-minded groups and individuals in a bold move to cut regional economic development off at the knees.

Say What?  Who Wouldn’t Want to be Exceptional?

Who wouldn’t want the state to recognize their favorite stream as “exceptional value,” you might ask.   Isn’t it an honor, a recognition of stewardship, a mark of distinction?  Well, yes, of course, but it’s much more than that.  It’s a legal standing that elevates the stream in importance relative to the people it serves.  Essentially, it says this stream is so pristine that we don’t want anyone to use it.  That’s a bit cynical, as stream classifications do have some merit, but anti-growth activists have seized upon them as a blunt instrument to stop anything and everything of significance from happening anywhere in the basin, including natural gas development.

Here is some of what the Delaware Riverkeeper Network says in its petition to designate the Upper and Middle Delaware River segment as Exceptional Value (emphasis added):

The Upper Delaware River and its tributary streams’ current PA designated use status does not reflect its quality as one of the most pristine bodies of water in Pennsylvania, or the nation for that matter, nor does it provide adequate protections against the threat of gas drilling currently pending approval of special gas drilling regulations by the Delaware River Basin Commission. If those regulations are approved, there could be up to 64,000 wells drilled within the watershed.

Dr. Erik Silldorff, an aquatic biologist with the DRBC, testified that, “exploratory well drilling projects within the drainage area of Delaware River Basin Special Protection Waters pose a substantial risk to the water quality and ecological condition of these waterways.” DRBC macro-invertebrate data, in coordination with PADEP, will be submitted as part of this upgrade petition to illustrate the diverse benthic community residing in the Delaware’s tributary streams. Because of the threat gas drilling poses to the Upper and Middle Delaware River (with 36% of the Delaware underlain with Marcellus shale), American Rivers designated the Upper Delaware River the most endangered River in the Nation in 2010.

An Exceptional Value designation will not stop gas drilling or other development in the Basin. It will, however, require that the necessary steps are taken to ensure preservation of the outstanding quality of the Upper Delaware watershed. Those steps include complete anti-degradation reviews for drilling permits, individual permit filing processing instead of general permit processing, and ensuring that the protected waterway is not affected by stormwater runoff and other impacts of drilling through Clean Water Act requirements.

These statements come from the two-page cover letter and indicate just how much importance Riverkeeper puts on Exceptional Value designation as a means of halting natural gas development in our region.  Keep in mind: this is a group that concedes its mission is to “end oil and gas drilling” and describes its current strategy merely “as a first step.”  Stopping natural gas development isn’t incidental to the Riverkeeper campaign for reclassification of the Delaware, it’s fundamental.  Not so coincidentally, the National Park Service and Sierra Club are simultaneously pushing to expand the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area, convert it to a national park and stop all river crossings by electric utilities and pipelines.

Riverkeeper Pads Case with Untruths and Shallow Research

The Riverkeeper’s petition is a compendium of every demagogic hysterical claim made by the natural gas opposition over the last four years.  Here are just a few examples followed by the reality:

DRBC estimates 36% of the Delaware River’s headwaters are underlain by the shale. In order to access the reserves of natural gas in the shale, energy companies have acquired drilling rights to large tracts of land in the watershed.

The Reality: As much as two-thirds, and perhaps much more of this, has no economically recoverable shale gas or lies within the New York City water supply watershed where development is not allowed – see chart below.

The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC), Environmental Protection Agency, and National Park Service have variously estimated that the natural gas industry could drill between 16,000 and 64,000 wells in the Delaware River Basin in coming years.

The Reality: This is a wildly inflated number based on the theory the shale is all viable and will be developed.  The real maximum number, based on 1,116 square miles of developable shale, units of one square mile and six wells per unit, is 6,700 wells and that, too, is wholly unrealistic given the impossibility of developing wells in most of this area due to the strict regulations that are already in place and will be even stricter under proposed DRBC rules.

The science coming out on drilling also raises concerns. An Academy of Natural Sciences’ preliminary study has found that even in areas where spills and large pollution events from industrial gas drilling are not evident, stream quality and diversity are declining in the intensely developed drilling areas of neighboring Pennsylvania counties. Public concern is at an all time high.

The Reality: The Academy’s study, if one can call it that, was conducted by a graduate student and involved a “small sample size.”  The SRBC, by contrast, recently released a report summarizing the results of extensive water testing involving over 2.2 million readings conducted in 37 locations.  It found six streams with somewhat atypical results requiring further, only one of which had a significant number of gas wells, that being the Meshoppen Creek, which then had 58 wells.  However, what made the results somewhat unusual was a slightly elevated pH of 7.7 compared to a basin-wide figure of 7.3 (pH can range from 6.0 to 9.0 in Pennsylvania).  The SRBC focuses, in this report, on turbidity and specific conductance as “surrogate indicator parameters” with respect to potential water quality impacts from natural gas development. The Meshoppen Creek exhibited, respectively, average readings of 8.28 (less than half the basin-wide average of 16. 98) and 0.14 (same as basin average).  There is, another words, little or no substantive evidence of what the Riverkeeper alleges based on the flimsiest of data.

Low level radioactive waste disposal facilities and hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities cannot be sited in EV watersheds. This is critical, as Marcellus Shale exploration is known to produce radioactive wastewater that requires disposal.

The Reality: This is, as we noted in an earlier piece, contradicted from information gathered by New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation.  This agency, on page 13 of its Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) related to high volume hydraulic fracturing notes “Gamma ray logs from deep wells drilled in New York over the past several decades show the Marcellus Shale to be higher in radioactivity than other bedrock formations including other potential reservoirs that could be developed by high-volume hydraulic fracturing. However, based on the analytical results from field-screening and gamma ray spectroscopy performed on samples of Marcellus Shale NORM levels in cuttings are not significant because the levels are similar to those naturally encountered in the surrounding environment.”

We can and will report more of the problems with the Riverkeeper’s petition in future articles, but the reader can see from just this brief review just how shallow the entire effort is.  It is simply a gimmick, an attempt to create a way through the back door to disrupt natural gas development.  It is also a method of lowering property values to enable future acquisition by the government and third parties who join the Riverkeeper in hoping to stop all development north of Bristol, where the Riverkeeper has offices.  It is one of the most cynical of ploys and needs to be confronted.

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