By Kati Lawson, Pennsylvania Legislative Service
Clean water activists and representatives from Clean Water Action, Sierra Club, Delaware Riverkeeper Network and Berks Gas Truth gathered in the Capitol Wednesday to call on Gov. Corbett (R-PA) to speak publicly on the extent of water contamination from fracking for natural gas in Pennsylvania.
Pennsylvania State Director of Clean Water Action, Myron Arnowitt, said the rally was being held because many activists know that Pennsylvania will end up with dirty water if gas companies continue to work without regulations. He pointed to some of the large signs carried by attendees on the steps and explained that they received a letter from the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) that told homeowners that their water had been contaminated due to gas drilling.
“It’s time for Gov. Corbett to tell the public what happened and how many people have been affected by fracking,” said Arnowitt. “We want a little truth from our government and some justice for the folks who have had their water contaminated by fracking.”
Tracy Carluccio, deputy director at Delaware Riverkeeper Network, said that the rally was scheduled to make the government listen to the people saying “no” to drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania. “We are as important as the gas development companies,” said Carluccio. “Democracy is eroding and we will bring it back by showing the truth about gas drilling.”
Carluccio said DEP has failed Pennsylvanians, and because Gov. Corbett is the man behind DEP, he too has failed his constituents. She said that DEP has not been transparent about drilling incidents and does not even have a database of the water affected by natural gas drilling.
“This administration is working for the gas drillers and developers, not for the people,” stated Carluccio. “We demand that the truth come out and we want a DEP that cares and works for the people.”
Karen Feridun, founder of Berks Gas Truth, said that all of Pennsylvania is in danger because of fracking, not just the areas of the state that host drilling wells. She explained that a compressor station 100 miles away from a Berks County Residence was affected during Hurricane Sandy and sent tons of gas and compounds into the air. Feridun said that people in the area who smelled gas tried to contact the gas company, the media and DEP with no success.
Feridun said that it took her personally contacting DEP representatives to get any answers about the compressor station incident. “Nothing has been done to the company who caused the leak and this kind of thing happens all the time,” said Feridun. “It’s almost guaranteed that when these companies violate the rules that nothing will happen; the recidivism rate is ridiculous.”
Feridun stated that she knows many wonderful hardworking people who would love to do their jobs in the DEP, but as long as Gov. Corbett is in charge the state is stuck with a dangerous industry in command. “There are lots of things in life that are more important than money,” said Feridun. “Our environment, health, safety and community are more important than money.”
Craig Stevens, a Susquehanna County resident affected by gas drilling, said that his message to the naysayers is to go see the destruction caused by fracking firsthand. He stated that DEP has been claiming that there is no problem, then he held up hundreds of determination letters from DEP released through Right-to-Know requests.
“This isn’t about fracking the ground for gas,” said Stevens. “This is about fracturing a community.”
Stevens said that he and other activists have offered the dirty drinking water of wells considered “safe” by DEP standards to DEP officials who refuse to drink. “There might be money in the ground for this, but I need water more than I need gas,” proffered Stevens.
Ray Kemble, a resident of Dimock, PA, brought with him a jug of his well water, which was a medium brown color. “The DEP and EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] came to my house and said there was nothing wrong with my water at first,” said Kemble. “Then a few months later I got a letter than said my well water is undrinkable.”
Kemble explained that he used to work within the natural gas industry, but now that he is a whistleblower he no longer has a job.
Nathan Sooy, Harrisburg director of Clean Water Action, called Harrisburg the “Capital of Un-Reality.” He demanded that Gov. Corbett direct DEP to protect the environment of Pennsylvania by implementing strong policies and practices, help all of the families whose water is impacted by natural gas drilling, and appoint a DEP Secretary who has experience in environmental protection.
Sooy said that a recent poll showed that almost two-thirds of Pennsylvanians are in favor of a full moratorium on drilling. He said that Gov. Corbett has accepted $1.8 million in contributions from the oil and gas industry since 2004 and called for Pennsylvanians to make the change in the Commonwealth through grassroots efforts.
Filmmaker Josh Fox, creator of the movie Gasland, called Harrisburg the biggest fracking site in the Commonwealth. He said that the past three governors have accepted funds from natural gas drillers, but that Act 13 is the greatest affront to Pennsylvania’s environment.
“Corbett sponsored and signed Act 13 which [sought] to overturn local and municipal bans because of Pennsylvania oil and gas laws,” said Fox. “Another law above Pennsylvania oil and gas law, which is the Constitution of Pennsylvania, guarantees Pennsylvanians our rights to clean air and water.”
Fox said that Act 13 also steps in between doctors and patients. He explained that if doctors think that their patient is suffering of a drilling-related illness they have to sign non-disclosure agreements.
“In New York, the government did environmental studies and then kept the natural gas industry out of the state because they had the democratic opportunity to do that,” said Fox.
He said that the democracy of every Pennsylvanian is in jeopardy because of the gas industry’s stranglehold on the elected government. Fox further explained that studies show that after thirty years, 50 percent of gas wells will leak in Pennsylvania. “With the projected 180,000 gas wells that are supposed to be built in Pennsylvania, there could be 90,000 leaky gas wells across Pennsylvania,” said Fox. “There is a clear possibility of contaminating the entire state of Pennsylvania.”
Fox said that Pennsylvanians have several reasons to be hopeful. “Nearly two-thirds of Pennsylvanians want a moratorium and Nate Silver said that Gov. Corbett is the most endangered governor in the United States of America,” stated Fox. He said it is important to share information from neighbor to neighbor in order to vote Gov. Corbett out of office in 2014 and make sure the Democrat running for governor embraces a full moratorium on gas drilling.
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On Feb. 7 in the Senate and Feb. 8 in the House, the Pennsylvania legislature voted in favor of HB 1950, a compromise gas development bill that was hammered out behind closed doors under the heavy hand of Gov. Tom Corbett. Under the guise of providing “impact fees” to municipalities where gas operations occur, the legislature effectively supported a takeover of municipalities by the state and the gas industry by gutting established and effective local planning and zoning rights.
Through provisions contained in the bill, municipalities will no longer be able to play a central, critical role in protecting the health, safety, and welfare of residents and determining which uses of land are most beneficial.
The bill requires that all types of oil and gas operations (except for natural gas processing plants)—unlike any other commercial or industrial business—be allowed in all zoning districts, even in residential neighborhoods and near schools, parks, hospitals and sensitive natural and cultural resource protection areas. As a result, people could be forced to live only 300 feet away from a gas well, open frack waste pit, or pipeline, despite growing evidence that such development causes pollution, damages health, and lowers property values.
The bill also mandates a one-size-fits-all ordinance that supersedes all existing ordinances and prevents municipalities from adopting any zoning provisions that are stricter than the weak, mandated standards.
“The Pennsylvania legislature has let the gas industry take over, despite the terrible consequences that drilling is having in communities across the Commonwealth. This so-called impact fee bill brings no net fiscal gain to Pennsylvania residents; it robs us of the ability to protect what is most locally valuable—our health, safety and resources—and gives gas operators the right to run all over our communities. This is unjust and exposes the true allegiances of the bill’s supporters—self-interested gas developers and their backers,” said Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.
“Today, many legislators and Gov. Corbett told Pennsylvania residents that protecting their health and rights matters far less to them than the gas industry’s demands,” said Nadia Steinzor, Marcellus regional organizer for Earthworks’ Oil and Gas Accountability Project. “They and other supporters of this bill turned a blind eye on the widespread damage caused by drilling and a deaf ear to calls from citizens for change, while doing the bidding of companies that want to drill anywhere, anytime.”
“If legislators were looking to pass a proposal that will allow more gas drilling near people’s homes, and the parks, playgrounds and schools where our children play and spend their days, then ‘Mission Accomplished,’” said Erika Staaf of PennEnvironment. “Sadly, this is just one more case of powerful interests dominating the political process, and the lack of leadership on both sides of the aisle to do anything about it.”
“A poorly-regulated gas industry will be able to drill in residential neighborhoods, bringing thousands of gallons of toxic chemicals, thousands of tractor trailers, round the clock noisy, polluting drilling, all as little as a football field away from homes, day care centers, and playgrounds,” said Jeff Schmidt, director of Sierra Club’s Pennsylvania Chapter. “The legislators who voted in favor of HB 1950 have abandoned any pretense that they are acting in the public interest. We will make sure the public knows who sided with the drillers and who sided with citizens when they go to the polls for this year’s elections.”
“This bill represents a huge step backwards in protection for Pennsylvania towns and the environment,” said Myron Arnowitt, Pennsylvania State director for Clean Water Action. “The state override of local zoning ordinances will greatly increase the threats to communities from all aspects of gas extraction. Never before has one industry been given full rights to do as they please, without recognizing the needs of other businesses, residents and our environment. 2012 is an election year, and we will be devoting our energy to ensuring that the voters of Pennsylvania are aware of which legislators voted to give away our control over an industry that has contaminated our air, land and water.”
“The legislators who voted for HB 1950 made a short-sighted decision that puts the health and safety of Pennsylvania’s communities at risk,” said Josh McNeil, executive director of Conservation Voters of Pennsylvania. “They voted against the interests of their constituents and should expect those constituents to return the favor in the November election.”
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