Fracking opponents seek support on a Maryland ban from Bel Air officials, who appear willing to oblige

The five town commissioners voted unanimously during a Dec. 13 work session to draft a position letter support

Harford County opponents of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to capture natural gas and shale petroleum deposits picked what at first appeared to be a curious venue to go public with their concerns: A meeting of the Bel Air Board of Town Commissioners.

The opponents, led by members of the group Harford County Climate Action, appeared before the commissioners at their two December town meetings. They gave a lengthy presentation and answered questions at the first session on Dec. 5 and came back two weeks later on Dec. 19 to thank the commissioners and to ask them to formally go on record supporting a ban on the drilling process in Maryland.

"We can't pass a ban," Tracey Waite, who lives in Bel Air and is president and founder of Harford Climate Action, said of the municipal government. "We can just pass a resolution in support of a ban."

While the prospect of natural gas drilling happening in Bel Air or other parts of Harford County is unlikely because the county does not sit on a shale formation, local environmental advocates want to enlist the support of municipal and county officials in Harford going into this year's Maryland General Assembly session.

"We're concerned that, if the Maryland legislature doesn't enact a ban in the upcoming session, fracking will start as early as next year," Waite said in a recent interview.

The five town commissioners voted unanimously during a Dec. 13 work session to draft a position letter supporting a ban on fracking in Maryland, Michael Krantz, Bel Air's Director of Administration, said.

Commissioner Brendan Hopkins made the motion to draft the letter, which was seconded by Commissioner Phillip Einhorn, according to Krantz.

He said the commissioners decided to send a position letter, rather than a resolution, because "they didn't feel a resolution was appropriate for this scenario."

As of Tuesday, however, the letter had not been drafted or formally approved, Krantz said.

A statewide moratorium on fracking is scheduled to end in October. Regulations proposed by Gov. Larry Hogan's administration to govern the process, which involves the high-pressure injection of water mixed with drilling fluids into shale rock to break it up and get to the gas, are undergoing legislative committee review.

Opponents of the process want the legislature to enact a permanent ban on fracking in Maryland to protect land and water resources from the fracking fluids being injected underground. Fracking has been happening in recent years in the Marcellus shale region of neighboring Pennsylvania, and proponents of fracking want to open the shale regions in Western Maryland to natural gas drilling to promote jobs and economic growth.

The Town of Friendsville and the City of Frostburg, as well as the Baltimore County Council, have passed resolutions in support of a ban, according to The Baltimore Sun.

Waite noted Harford County environmental advocates are concerned that drilling in other parts of the state could lead to the growth of infrastructure in Harford to transport natural gas, such as pipelines, compressor stations and power stations.

"Also, air and water pollution comes here, too," she said, noting pollution from drilling operations in Pennsylvania could come into Harford County via the Susquehanna River.

All of the public and private drinking water in Harford County, including the Bel Air areas, is either tied directly to the Chesapeake Bay/Susquehanna River ecosystem or comes from groundwater wells that are susceptible to degradation from human activities both above and below the surface of the land. While the nearest fracking operations are hundreds of miles to the north in Pennsylvania, many are within the Susquehanna Basin.

Waite and other members of her group recently took a guided tour of Dimock, Pa., a town about 33 miles north of Scranton in the northeastern part of the state. Their tour guides were local people, some of whom have been fighting fracking.

A federal jury found that the drilling firm Cabot Oil and Gas was negligent for polluting the water wells of some Dimock residents, National Public Radio's State Impact reported in March of 2016.

Waite and other members of her group could see the impacts of fracking when they visited Dimock and the surrounding Susquehanna County in September. They could see polluted water, as well as sheds in residents' yards used for storing containers of water or for venting methane gas.

"You can drive through a place like that and not really notice what's going on until somebody starts to point out to you what you're seeing," Waite said.

She said the polluted water was "brown and looked awful."

The fracking opponents asked to be included on the Dec. 5 town meeting agenda to present their concerns and were duly signed up, according to Krantz. The group even sang anti-fracking Christmas Carols in front of Town Hall.

About 45 people took part in the Dec. 5 protest, according to Waite.

Concern about environmental degradation and the impact on the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem prompted the awareness campaign in Bel Air, Don Mathis, a Havre de Grace resident and one of the opponents, said during the group's follow-up appearance at Bel Air Town Hall on Dec. 19.

Mathis said Harford Climate Action plans similar awareness campaigns in other Harford municipalities such as Havre de Grace, whose water supply is the Susquehanna, and Aberdeen, where drinking water comes from either the river or well fields.

"There are so many dangers in and of itself; it's really energy we don't need," Mathis said, urging the commissioners to go on record opposing fracking in Maryland, "not for ourselves, for our kids and grandkids."

Waite, who also spoke briefly that evening, thanked the commissioners "for taking the time to hear us out."

Einhorn said he had attended a Maryland Municipal League regional meeting in mid-December, after the anti-fracking group had first appeared before the commissioners, and said he was "astounded to find out how little people know" about fracking and its environmental impacts.

"I want to thank you for bringing it to our attention," he said, a point seconded by Hopkins, who said the group had spoke "about things we didn't know."

Aegis staff member Allan Vought contributed to this report.

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