The rush to tap natural gas reserves in Pennsylvania prompted the environmental group American Rivers today to name the Susquehanna River the most endangered water way in the country. One of the nation's longest rivers, The Susquehanna supplies drinking water to six million people. It's also the chief tributary of the Chesapeake Bay.
The designation comes as national environmental groups press for a crackdown on the gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping millions of gallons of water laced with chemicals and other substances deep into the ground to extract methane from layers of rock.
The group is calling for Pennsylvania, New York, and the Susquehanna River Basin Commission need to impose a "complete moratorium" on water withdrawals and "fracking" until there are comprehensive regulations in place to safeguard drinking water and the environment.
"The potential for future environmental and public health catastrophes along the Susquehanna will only increase, considering the number of new wells projected and the amount of toxic wastewater produced," the group says in a release.
New York already has temporarily halted fracturing to study the issue. Maryland has had a de facto moratorium for more than a year now, holding up permits sought by a pair of companies to drill exploratory wells in Garrett County near the Pennsylvania border. A bill that would have placed a two-year moratorium in drilling in Maryland while more study is done died, but state officials say they don't intend to issue permits unless and until they're sure adequate safeguards are in place - a process that could take close to two years anyway.
In a related development, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection today announced it has levied more than $1 million in fines against Chesapeake Energy, one of the companies drilling for gas there, for contaminating wells in one county and for a fire in February at one of its wells.
Paul Swartz, executive director of the Susquehanna basin commission, called American Rivers' demand for a moratorium "misguided."
The commission has only a 'limited' role in the regulation of natural gas development, he said, in overseeing water withdrawals and consumptive water uses. Concerns about water contamination need to be addressed by state and federal governments, he said.
Swartz also contended that American Rivers exaggerrates how much of the Susquehanna's flow would be needed to provide drilling fluid for the hundreds of thousands of wells that could be drilled. The group said 1.5 times the river's annual flow would be used to sustain drilling operations. But Swartz countered that with 18 million gallons of freshwater flow per minute, the river's flow would be minimally affected - less than 3 percent of the flow, he said, even in dry spells.
Other rivers making American Rivers' annual "most endangered" list include Briston Bay rivers in Alaska and Roanoke River in Virginia and North Carolina, which the group says are threatened by mining operations. To see all the rivers on the list, go here.
(Baltimore Sun photos: Top, Susquehanna River at Conowingo Dam, 2005 by David Hobby; natural gas well in Pennsylvania, by Doug Kapustin)