Commission seeks fracking ban in watershed supplying NYC

A commission that oversees water quality for the watershed that supplies Philadelphia and half of New York City with drinking water took another step Thursday toward permanently banning natural gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing, despite industry opposition.

The Delaware River Basin Commission's newly published draft regulations would enact a formal ban on fracking, as well as put additional restrictions to make it harder, if not impossible, for the industry to dispose wastewater within the watershed or use water from the river and its tributaries for fracking outside the basin.

It scheduled four hearings in January and a public comment period through Feb. 28, with a final vote possible next year. The area supplies drinking water to 15 million people.

The decade-old drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale natural gas reservoir — which lies beneath much of Pennsylvania and extends into New York — has put pressure on the Delaware River basin to allow exploration and fracking, the technique that's spurred a U.S. production renaissance in shale gas and oil.

New York banned horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing statewide in 2015, while more than 10,000 Marcellus Shale wells drilled in Pennsylvania has rocketed the state to within striking distance of Texas to becoming the nation's No. 1 natural gas producer.

The commission imposed a moratorium on drilling and fracking in 2010, preventing the industry from developing its acreage in the Delaware watershed. It voted 3-1, with one abstention, in September to begin the lengthy process of enacting a formal ban on drilling and fracking.

A commission spokesman said Thursday he was not aware of any case where the industry had even applied to draw water from the watershed for use in fracking or to import its wastewater to a treatment facility inside the basin.

David Masur, the director of Philadelphia-based PennEnvironment, an environmental advocacy group, said he supported the new regulations and suggested that the tighter restrictions would ensure the basin's water is off-limits to the exploration industry.

"Since they have plenty of other places to get their water and dump their wastewater, why would they go through this process?" Masur said.

Jeff Tittel, the director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said the draft regulations still leave the possibility that the industry could draw water or return it to the basin as wastewater, and he opposes that.

"We don't want the threat of wastewater or the removal of precious water, and we'll keep fighting to get the regulations that way," Tittel said.

The industry has opposed the fracking ban.

In a statement, David Spigelmyer, the president of the Pennsylvania-based Marcellus Shale Coalition, a trade association, said the proposed regulations "amount to a taking and deny Pennsylvania citizens the right to develop their own property rights. It flies in the face of settled science and common sense environmental regulation, and would bring self-inflicted economic harm to the commonwealth."

The commission noted that drilling wastewater discharged through domestic wastewater treatment facilities in the past — such as in Pennsylvania — has caused elevated concentrations of chloride and bromide in receiving waterways.

Though not considered a pollutant by themselves, the bromides combine with the chlorine used in water treatment to produce trihalomethanes, which can cause cancer if ingested over a long period of time, researchers say.

In fracking, large volumes of water, along with sand and chemicals, are injected underground to break rock apart and free oil and gas.

For now, three Democratic state governors represented on the commission — Pennsylvania, Delaware and New York — support the ban in the basin. New Jersey's election of Phil Murphy, a Democrat, will make it a fourth governor who supports the ban when Murphy is inaugurated in January.

A representative of Republican New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie abstained in September's vote, and a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers officer, representing GOP President Donald Trump, voted against the ban.