In Anticipation of the End of Northeast Pa.'s Drilling Moratorium, Regulators Rush to Collect Water Samples

  • Susan Phillips

Mary Cummings Jordan / WHYY

A view of the Delaware river from Bucks County, Pa.

Environmental regulators from the Delaware River Basin Commission are out collecting more than 100 baseline water tests from headwater streams in anticipation of lifting their drilling moratorium. The rush to create a database comes as the Commission prepares its final proposal, which will be made public November 7. The DRBC will take up their proposed regulations at a public meeting two weeks later. The moratorium is in place until the Commission approves new rules. The November meeting will likely be contentious as anti-drilling activists plan to voice their anger with the DRBC for not conducting an environmental impact study ahead of writing new gas drilling regulations.
In the meantime, employees from the DRBC have been quietly establishing a record of the Delaware River Basin’s pristine water quality. In the past, the Commission has focused their mandated water quality testing on the main branch of the river. But the bulk of proposed gas drilling will occur near the river’s headwater streams in Wayne County, Pa., and Sullivan County, N.Y. Thomas Fikslin is the DRBC’s manager for modeling, monitoring and assessment.
“We are concerned about water quality with respect to the biological community in these headwater streams,” said Fikslin. “These streams are very pristine. The forested regions of the upper basin are extremely high quality.”
In 1992, the commission established these streams as “special protection waters.” In 2005 that category was extended down to Trenton. Special protection means the current water quality cannot change.
Fikslin says the Delaware’s headwater streams are “soft,” meaning the water does not have high levels of total dissolved solids, or salts, and the conductivity is low, meaning it’s free from certain pollutants.
“These waters have very low dissolved solids, whereas the wastewater from natural gas development is very high in total dissolved solids,” said Fikslin.  “And [the gas drilling flowback] also has some of those dissolved ions, [which] are not those that we typically monitor for. So we were very concerned that we didn’t have information to document any potential impact of this development.”
Fikslin says they have also added tests for radioactive materials and heavy metals such as barium and strontium.
In other parts of the state, where the drilling boom has expanded rapidly, residents have complained about fouled drinking water wells. But they lacked the baseline data to prove, either way, whether gas drilling caused the pollution, or whether the contaminants already existed in the water supply.
Fikslin says he’s concerned not just about stream aquatic life, but also about the quality of the drinking water supply for Philadelphia and Trenton.
Part of the DRBC’s newly proposed regulations would require gas companies themselves to do monitoring before well pad construction and after a well is fracked. Within the Delaware River Basin, companies would also be required to test drinking water wells that lie within 2000 feet of a gas well. If not enough drinking wells exist in a given area, the DRBC has proposed making the companies drill test wells. The Delaware River Basin Commission is expected to vote on the new regulations at their meeting on November 21.

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