New Report Presents Policy Blueprint to Tackle Environmental and Health Threats of Marcellus Shale Gas Drilling

PennEnvironment Research & Policy Center

In the face of ongoing environmental damage and public health threats posed by Marcellus Shale drilling, a statewide environmental advocacy group released a new policy blueprint today that will tackle these challenges as drilling continues across the Commonwealth.

“Drilling for gas in the Marcellus Shale reserve began here just over three years ago, and already too many local drinking water supplies and waterways have been contaminated because of this drilling,” said Erika Staaf, Clean Water Advocate with PennEnvironment. “The faster Pennsylvania’s leaders work to pass comprehensive policies and regulations on this type of gas drilling, the less likely we’ll be to see yet another gas leak or wastewater spill, and the safer we’ll all be.”

The report, entitled Preserving Forests, Protecting Waterways outlines the most urgent and widespread environmental and public health concerns associated with Marcellus Shale gas drilling in Pennsylvania. The report also proposes a set of policy and regulatory solutions to address these problems.

Preserving Forests, Protecting Waterways outlines several concerns about the deep-well drilling process, also known as hydraulic fracturing. These concerns range from the large volume of water used for drilling; to the toxic makeup of the resulting waste fluid from deep well drilling that has created treatment and disposal challenges across the Commonwealth; to the contamination of drinking water supplies and rivers and streams that has already occurred across Pennsylvania due to improper drilling and wastewater handling practices.

In the report, PennEnvironment unveiled a blueprint showing simple and commonsense policies that could be put in place to protect the public’s health, drinking water sources and the environment as gas drilling continues in Pennsylvania.

The report calls on Pennsylvania’s elected officials to pass drilling protections that:

  • Improve the public’s right to know and access to information about drilling;Put areas that supply drinking water, critical habitats, and public lands off limits to drilling;
  • Pass mandatory minimum penalties for polluters who violate laws or destroy the environment, and implement severe penalties using existing clean water laws;
  • Increase funding to the Department of Environmental Protection to allow for expanded enforcement, permit review and on-site review of drilling; and
  • Strengthen existing clean water laws to deal with the rapid expansion of drilling.

“Our elected officials are going to have to make a decision: are they going to protect the public’s health, or are they going to put polluter profits ahead of the health of the Commonwealth’s citizens and environment?” said Staaf.

The Marcellus Shale gas reserve runs underneath portions of a handful of states from New York all the way down to Maryland. However, the largest stretch of the formation is found under Pennsylvania, across nearly two-thirds of the state. In total, the Marcellus shale gas reserve covers about 54,000 square miles, equal in size to the state of Florida, and runs 5,000-8,000 feet below the surface. The gas is found in the pores and pockets created by the Marcellus Shale.

As part of the hydraulic fracturing process, drilling companies use a cocktail of chemicals and sand to help break up the shale and access the gas. Companies in Pennsylvania have been shown to use between 85 and 150 different chemicals in this process, including arsenic, benzene, xylene, pesticides, among others. Many of these chemicals are suspected or known carcinogens, endocrine disruptors, or causes of respiratory, neurological other serious health problems.

PennEnvironment pointed to examples of river, stream, and groundwater pollution in several Pennsylvania locations. In Dimock, located in Susquehanna County, Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation was ordered in September to cease all drilling activities after it spilled roughly 8,000 gallons of dangerous drilling fluids killing fish and wildlife in the area. This cease and desist order was later lifted. Near Pittsburgh, improperly treated Marcellus drilling wastewater was discharged into the Monongahela River, causing a drinking water advisory for 325,000 citizens.

PennEnvironment asserted that the gas drilling industry’s lobbying efforts will make it challenging to implement some of these solutions. Gas drilling industries spent over $1 million in lobbying money this year.

“PennEnvironment’s policies ideas should serve as a blueprint for Pennsylvania’s leaders. If the legislature implements the policies, the state will be on its way toward allowing safe drilling while protecting public health and preserving our natural heritage for future generations of Pennsylvanians,” concluded Staaf.