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Showdown Expected at the SRBC Corral

Susan Phillips / StateImpact PA

A woman protests fracking at the offices of the federal Army Corps of Engineers in Philadelphia.

Although the SRBC says no public comment will be allowed at today’s meeting, activists say they will testify anyway. Drilling opponents are planning nonviolent direct action at the Susquehanna River Basin Commission meeting on Thursday, in Harrisburg. The SRBC is expected to approve several water withdrawal permits for Anadarko Petroleum, Cabot Oil and Gas, and Carrizo. But environmental activists say the SRBC has rubber-stamped these permits while ignoring the environmental impact of gas drilling in the Susquehanna river watershed.
Iris Marie Bloom, from the Philadelphia-based Protecting Our Waters, says she’s reluctant to resort to direct action, but previous attempts to influence commissioners through public comment has failed.
“We feel we have to be protectors,” she said. “Nobody wants to get arrested.”
The SRBC says it’s ready to clamp down if audience members try to disrupt the meeting. Last week, the SRBC released a new set of rules for Thursday’s meeting, which include having attendees show photo I.D., forbidding public comment, and no video or taping by anyone but credentialed media. The media will be sectioned off in a specific area, as will anyone who wants to hold up a sign.
Susan Obleski, the spokeswoman for the SRBC, says after activists shut down the December meeting, Commissioners are committed to getting through Thursday’s agenda without disruption.
“It’s not our desire to have people arrested,” said Obleski. “But if it comes to that, then that’s the action we will take.”
Obleski says Capitol Police will be present, as well as plain clothed security officers. The SRBC has hired a private security firm as a consultant.
At issue is language in the SRBC’s compact that includes water quality as part of the Commission’s responsibility. Environmentalists say the SRBC is ignoring that mandate, and some have threatened a lawsuit.

Win McNamee / Getty Images

SRBC Deputy Executive Director Tom Beauduy testifies at a Senate hearing on shale gas production, in Washington, D.C., October 20, 2011.

But Obleski says the compact merely gives Commissioners the option of exercising that authority. The Commission is made up of three member states and the federal government. The states include New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers represents the federal government. Obleski says it’s up to them to give the Commissioners, and the SRBC staff, the green light to start looking at water quality issues related to gas drilling.
“We fill in the regulatory gap when it comes to water quantity,” said Obleski. “But we are creatures of our member states and the federal government. If they don’t see a need, we would not independently set up our own program [to oversee gas drilling].”
Obleski says none of the commissioners, nor the federal government, have expressed the desire to change the activities of the SRBC.
“It would be duplicating what is in existence,” said Obleski. “The member agencies believe their laws are adequate.”
Unlike the SRBC, the Delaware River Basin Commission does regulate water quality, and has imposed a moratorium on drilling until new rules are enacted. That process has reached a stalemate, and shale gas development has not yet begun along the Delaware river. But Obleski says the DRBC was created ten years before the SRBC, when little state or federal oversight existed. By the time the SRBC was created, she says enough federal and state regulations were in place to insure the water quality of the Susquehanna.
But Iris Marie Bloom, from Protecting Our Waters, disagrees. She says Thursday’s scheduled votes on water withdrawals are illegitimate.
“Commissioners have failed to undertake or complete a cumulative impact study in the Susquehanna River Basin regarding the full life-cycle impacts of unconventional gas drilling,” said Bloom.
That would include the impact on the river system after the water is used to frack a well, and becomes contaminated with drilling chemicals and radiological material brought up from deep shale drilling. Bloom says the commissioners have ignored public testimony that opposes the water withdrawals. Without water, drillers would be unable to frack and complete the wells.
Protecting Our Waters, along with ten other environmental groups, including the Sierra Club and Clean Water Action, have called for a halt to water withdrawals in the Susquehanna river basin. Bloom says residents of the river basin have gotten sick from gas drilling.
“There are currently 12 environmental violations per day on average, at Marcellus Shale gas drilling well pads and associated infrastructure in Pennsylvania,” said Bloom.
[To find out more about recent violations at gas wells across the state, click on the StateImpact map, which details producing Marcellus Shale wells in Pennsylvania.]
The Washington Post recently reported on how the FBI is keeping tabs on activists, including those advocating for more stringent gas drilling rules.
Bloom says the actions will follow the traditions of Gandhi and Martin Luther King.
“It’s love in action,” said Bloom. “Love for the Susquehanna river.”
As for the SRBC, their days of transparency and openness toward the public may be waning.
“We questioned ourselves as to whether some of [these measures were] too aggressive,” said SRBC spokeswoman Susan Obleski.  “We’ve always been an accommodating, friendly agency and it’s unfortunatue that we had to create these barriers. But based on everything we’re hearing we don’t feel that way now.”

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