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Gas Drilling Threatens Susquehanna River, Says Report

American Rivers, which publishes an annual list of the "most endangered rivers" in the country, said Tuesday the dangers to water resources from natural gas drilling have lifted the Susquehanna River to the top of its 2011 compilation.

The Susquehanna and its tributaries flow over the Marcellus Shale region in New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

"The rush to develop natural gas has come without consideration of the impacts to clean water, rivers and the health of these communities," said the authors of the American Rivers report. For the Susquehanna, the "threat of contamination is high" because some of the water used to hydraulically fracture (frack) the Marcellus Shale returns to the surface and "requires specialized treatment, but at this time only a limited number of wastewater treatment facilities have the capacity to handle it."

Pennsylvania and New York, noted the authors, are working to improve clean water safeguards for gas development but "they fall short of adequately protecting the water supply for millions of Americans." Because of the lack of safeguards, these states and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) should "analyze all of the potential cumulative impacts that could result from natural gas extraction and ensure proper regulations are in place and capable of being enforced before development is allowed to continue."

The Harrisburg, PA-based SRBC manages the water resources of the Susquehanna River Basin, which provides about 45% of the fresh water in Chesapeake Bay. The Susquehanna River starts in Cooperstown, NY, and flows 444 miles to Havre de Grace, MD, where the river meets the Chesapeake Bay.

The states and the SRBC were urged by American Rivers to "announce a complete moratorium on water withdrawals and hydraulic fracturing until there are comprehensive regulations in place for natural gas development or they will put public health and drinking water at risk."

Late last year the SRBC said it would install real-time monitoring stations in 10 watersheds in the Southern Tier of New York as an early warning system for potential gas drilling incidents (see Shale Daily, Dec. 2, 2010).

Several frack-related spills have affected the Susquehanna River's tributaries in the past few years. Chesapeake Energy Corp. last week resumed completion activities in the Marcellus after voluntarily halting operations in April after a well blowout released thousands of gallons of fracking fluid into a tributary of the Susquehanna River (see Daily GPI, May 16; April 25).

The spill led Pennsylvania authorities to launch an investigation and to issue a notice of violation, while the state of Maryland filed a lawsuit against the company (see Daily GPI, May 4; April 26).

The Hoback River in Wyoming at No. 7 on the list also is threatened by gas drilling, the authors said.

If the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) permits natural gas drilling in the river's headwaters, there could be "catastrophic damage to water quality," according to the report.

The Hoback flows through the Bridger-Teton National Forest in the Wyoming Range. In May the USFS withdrew a decision to not permit oil and gas drilling in the forest (see Daily GPI, May 9). In the reversal U.S. Forest Supervisor Jacqueline A. Buchanan said a more thorough analysis needs to be conducted before a final decision on drilling is made.

"In addition to significant sedimentation risk from well construction and other development, the river's clean water is threatened by industrial chemicals and toxic wastewater from the hydraulic fracturing...process," the authors said of the Hoback's designation on the list.

"Many water wells across the Rocky Mountain West are suspected to have been contaminated by natural gas activities and similar pollution could impact the Hoback. Near the Upper Hoback, drilling wastes may be buried onsite, creating future contamination sources. Three proposed underground disposal wells for wastewater would create additional pathways for cross-contamination."

The Bridger-Teton National Forest, said the authors, "is not requiring a comprehensive baseline analysis of the area's surface and groundwater quality prior to development. So if contamination happens, it would be difficult to attribute responsibility to the drilling company. This threat of contamination would pose significant risks to public health and recreational uses.

"Unless the U.S. Forest Service prepares a new environmental analysis and develops a true conservation alternative that fully protects the river, the Hoback will lose its unique wild character and local citizens could face serious health risks."

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