Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Pennsylvania Natural Gas Drillers and Water Watch Dogs

A small watershed protection group has drawn the disdain of the state's natural gas industry by offering a training program to help citizens in Northern Pennsylvania learn how to document and report potential environmental violations at Marcellus Shale natural gas drilling sites.

The Pine Creek Headwaters Protection Group, based in Tioga County, will hold its second two-hour training session Tuesday, Dec. 8 at 7 p.m. at the Pennsylvania College of Technology campus near Wellsboro.

The "waterdogs" program is meant to teach citizens in Susquehanna, Bradford and Tioga counties how to monitor waterways and well sites in the midst of a rapid expansion of gas drilling. It is also aimed at supplementing the oversight of the Department of Environmental Protection, which has struggled to fill all 17 oil and gas positions in its northcentral regional office.

In publicity materials about the event, the group called DEP's permitting and inspection process "very rigorous" but said the staff is outnumbered by the many out-of-state gas contractors that are "not yet familiar with our regulations regarding water usage, erosion and sedimentation, and waste disposal.

"The region is too large and the resources of the regulators too limited to effectively keep track of the exponential growth in activity taking place," the group said.

Reaction from the state's natural gas industry ranged from disbelief to derision.

The Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association posted news of the event on its Web site under the headline, "Environmental vigilante training to help enforce Marcellus drilling regs."

"In just two hours you can learn all you need to know to be an environmental vigilante and help protect our watersheds from Marcellus gas drillers," the post said.

On his "Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Law Blawg," Meadville-based oil and gas attorney Russell L. Schetroma called the event "amazing."

"Hopefully the participants, the sponsor and the college have insurance to cover the damages operators suffer from spurious claims of environmental damage made by graduates of the program," he wrote.

Stephen Rhoads, president of the Pennsylvania Oil and Gas Association, said his post was meant to be "tongue-in-cheek," but the production of natural gas in the state and its regulation are "very serious issues."

"To act like you're going to make someone competent as a DEP inspector with two hours of training for issues as complicated and arcane as these... is a little naive and a little dangerous," he said.

He also said the volunteers risk creating more work for DEP, rather than helping its staff, "by reporting things that aren't in fact a problem."

DEP investigates all complaints that fall under the department's jurisdiction.

But Ron Comstock, president of the headwaters group, said the goal is precisely to limit the amount of unsubstantiated complaints filed with DEP by people who do not know what to look for.

"In the absence of some responsible programs like this, they're going to have just tons of that," he said.

The group encourages people to be aware of the drilling as it expands in the region. "Maybe they'll see something that's not right," he said, "and with some training, they'll know what to do."

The group also emphasizes water quality monitoring in streams where it already has strong baseline data so it can track signs of leaks or spills, he said. Similar community monitoring has been recommended at public meetings by water quality specialists with the Penn State Cooperative Extension.

Mr. Comstock said his group hopes to start a training movement that will spread to other watershed groups around the state.

"We stress safety," he said. "If there's anything we can do to make a bad experience something better and safer, that's what we hope to do."

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