Concerns that natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale could damage the region’s water quality have prompted the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to require energy companies obtain commission approval before beginning any gas extraction project in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s special protection waters (SPW).

The DRBC said the action in mid-May reflects concern about the potential for damage to the water quality of a 197-mile nontidal area of the river between Hancock, NY, and Trenton, NJ. The federal-interstate compact government agency was formed by concurrent legislation enacted in 1961 by the United States and the four basin states: Delaware, New Jersey, New York and Pennsylvania. Its five members include the basin state governors and a federal government representative appointed by the president. The commission has authority over both water quality and water quantity-related issues throughout the basin.

“This determination explains DRBC regulatory requirements on an interim basis and asserts commission review over all aspects of natural gas extraction projects in shale formations within the drainage area of the basin’s special protection waters, regardless of the amount of water withdrawn or the capacity of domestic sewage treatment facilities accepting frac’ing [hydraulic fracturing] wastewater,” said DRBC Executive Director Carol R. Collier.

The DRBC intends to adopt regulations “pertaining to the subject matter contained in this determination after public notice and a full opportunity for public comment, but this rulemaking process can be lengthy,” Collier noted. “In the meantime, DRBC will apply this determination in combination with its existing regulations.”

The determination “is to provide directional signals, not put up roadblocks,” Collier said. “Each of these activities, if not properly performed, may cause adverse environmental effects on water resources. The bottom line for the DRBC is to ensure that proper environmental controls are provided to safeguard our basin’s water resources that are used by nearly 15 million people.”

The commission’s SPW program is designed to prevent degradation in streams and rivers considered to have exceptionally high scenic, recreational, ecological and/or water supply values through stricter control of wastewater discharges, nonpoint pollution control and reporting requirements.

Under the DRBC’s determination, a natural gas extraction project “encompasses the drilling pad upon which a well intended for eventual production is located, all accompanying facilities and related activities, and all locations of water withdrawals used or to be used to supply water to the project.” Wells intended only for exploratory purposes, that is, those that the operator intends to plug and cap when the exploration is completed without use for production or without using hydraulic fracturing, are not part of the determination. However, the commission noted that exploratory wells still are subject to state regulation.

“To determine whether the rules of practice and procedure require DRBC review of any projects falling outside this determination, we continue to recommend that any company proposing natural gas extraction activities anywhere in the basin contact DRBC staff to schedule a preapplication meeting,” Collier said.

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