Precious few regulations govern drilling in Sullivan County

DEC can fine companies for spills, accidents
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Drilling-rig workers test shale beneath the Ordie Price’s Sawmill property in South Gibson, Pa.Scranton Times/MICHAEL J. MULLEN
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Who's going to watch our backs?

That's one of the top questions Sullivan County residents are asking as huge companies plan to drill for natural gas here. With the risk of ground contamination, air pollution and road destruction, residents want to know who's looking out for their health and safety.

Here's a rundown of the federal, state and local regulations — or lack thereof — that will govern gas drilling when it comes to Sullivan.

this is the second of two reports on natural gas drilling coming to Sullivan County. Yesterday: Fear and rejoicing about gas prospecting.

A wash of federal exemptions

Don't look for federal oversight.

The Energy Policy Act of 2005 — and statutes before it — exempted gas drilling from standards in the Clean Air, Clean Water, Clean Drinking Water and Right-to-Know acts.

As a result, farm towns in western states have the same air quality as America's largest cities. It also means that gas companies are not compelled to reveal the mixture of chemicals that is shot into the ground, shattering subsurface rocks to free the gas.

Some said those chemicals are toxic and carcinogenic. Others said they're pumped so far below the water table that worries are moot. Because the chemicals are secret, it's hard to measure their impact.

The feds might have an iota of power through the Delaware River Basin Commission. Gas rigs would use millions of gallons of water, and some believe they'll try taking it from the Delaware River or its tributaries. The DRBC would have to approve that.

State has enforcement power

Gas companies submit development plans and must obtain a state permit before drilling. They're not required to study environmental impacts, but they have to conform to specifications from a general impact study. Permitting usually takes 20 to 45 days.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation inspects the work site pre-drilling to check setbacks, spacing and road location, said Brad Field, director of the mineral resources division. The DEC secures a $250,000 bond in case the companies leave without plugging wells and reclaiming work sites. In the case of spills or other accidents, the DEC can levy fines of $1,000 a day until the site is cleaned.

The DEC does not monitor air, water or soil quality.

Little authority for locals

Because state laws for drilling supersede local rule, town governments only control two things: assessments and roads.

They have the power to assess each drill site, but even their power to regulate roads is unclear, attorneys have said, because they cannot stop trucks from driving on roads.

Studies in other drilling states have shown that huge gas company trucks have caused 85 percent deterioration to country roads.

"That means you're going to see potholes, digs, cracks and breaks in the pavement," Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Bill Pammer said.

He believes the DEC should require gas companies to sign road improvement bonds before running over Sullivan's streets. Currently, the cost of fixing roads would be borne by towns and villages.

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Copyright © 2008 Hudson Valley Media Group, a division of Ottaway Newspapers, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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