The Upper Delaware’s Last Stand: Threat of Gas Drilling Earns River Most Endangered Status

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Earth Island Journal

The Upper Delaware’s Last Stand: Threat of Gas Drilling Earns River Most Endangered Status

by
Adam Federman

Just outside of the town of Hancock, New York, on a
narrow
dirt road that follows the east branch of the Delaware River, you can
find a
harmless looking wooden stake that demarcates the future site of a
natural gas
well. It sits on top of a fairly steep hillside just above one of the
rivers
many tributaries. It is surrounded by forest, wetlands, unnamed streams,
and
spring fed ponds. Residents consider the spring water some of the best
in the
world.

Now imagine a well pad the size of
a football field, perhaps even larger (some take up five acres), in
place of
that wooden stake; access roads for trucks and heavy machinery; hundreds
of
truck trips carrying supplies—fluid containing toxic chemicals to
fracture the
wells, water, and equipment—every day for years; and around the clock
drilling.
Multiply that well site by several hundred, the predicted number that
may
eventually populate Hancock—“The Gateway to the Upper Delaware”—and its
surrounding countryside.

Because of its proximity to the
river, the Millennium Pipeline, and a major highway (I-17), Hancock has
been
ground zero for an ongoing land rush in New York State. In fact, as of
last spring more than twenty five percent of the total land area, or
25,000
acres, had been leased to a small number of gas companies. Just to the
north in
Deposit, one of the largest landowner leases was signed in 2008, ceding
more
than 45,000 acres to XTO Energy, which was recently acquired by Exxon-
Mobil
for $31 billion. (It was the company’s largest acquisition since it
purchased
Mobil a decade ago; some have opined recently that it is time for the
“gas”
industry to separate itself from the “oil” industry. Increasingly, they
are one
and the same).

Because
of the threat of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the Upper Delaware
River
has been named the most endangered river in the country by American Rivers, a
non-profit organization whose annual report highlights “rivers
confronted by
critical decisions that will determine their future.” (The Monongahelo
River in
Pennsylvania and West Virginia also made the list, at number nine,
because of
the threat of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.) The criteria are
simple.
The river must be of regional or national significance; there must be an
impending decision that could radically alter the river’s ecology; and
which
poses a significant threat to human and natural communities.

The Upper Delaware provides
drinking water to roughly 17 million people, including the cities of
Philadelphia and Trenton (New York City’s drinking water reservoirs are
also
within the watershed). The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is in
the
process of deciding whether to issue permits for water withdrawal and
test
wells (between three and nine million gallons of water are used to
fracture
each well). And New York State’s Department of Environmental
Conservation is
expected to begin issuing permits to drill in its portion of the
Marcellus
Shale this year, despite urgent calls for a moratorium on drilling until
a
national study of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing is
finished. The river is also home to several rare and endangered species,
a
popular stretch for paddlers, and highly prized by trout fishermen. 

The Upper Delaware has long been recognized as a
valuable
natural resource. In 1978, Congress added the river to the National Wild
and
Scenic Rivers System, which “prohibits…instream activities that would
harm the
river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, or outstanding resource
values.”
In the early 1990s, the DRBC designated the same stretch as part of a
“specially protected area” subject to heightened regulatory measures.
Today,
they are the governing body ultimately in charge of shaping the river’s
and the
region’s future (the DRBC is made up of the governors of Pennsylvania,
New
York, New Jersey, and Delaware—all of whom face severe budget
shortfalls—as
well as the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). According to
the
American Rivers report, “Until a thorough study of the impacts on
drinking
water is completed, the Delaware River Basin Commission must refrain
from
issuing permits that will allow gas drilling in this watershed.” Damascus
Citizens for Sustainability
, a local advocacy group, is calling on
the
Commission to review “all test wells, exploratory operations, gas-well
drilling, and/or hydraulic fracturing of any and all wells in the
watershed
until a thorough study of the environmental impacts is completed.”

So, the Upper Delaware is now a
contested battleground. Several farmers have told me that the river may
be
their saving grace, the only thing that stands between them and a future
industrialized landscape. “One thing we do have going for us is the
Delaware
River,” Greg Swartz, an organic farmer in
nearby
Abrahamsville, Pennsylvania told me in December. “I do have some hope, pretty far-sighted hope, that
there
will be additional regulations instituted to protect us.”

There are other
threats, perhaps
less apparent. An economically depressed region, the Upper Delaware is
one of
the few remaining attractions for tourists and those interested in
moving to
the area. Gas drilling may bring an end to that. Of course, regional
poverty is
also the gas industry’s biggest selling point. They say they will bring
jobs to
the region and provide a much-needed economic renaissance. I spent a
couple of
days in Hancock late last year. Much of the town’s economy seems to
depend on
its proximity to the interstate. There are a couple of hotels, a few
shops, a
McDonald's, but nothing much beyond that. Several businesses were
shuttered.
There’s an old surgical blade manufacturing plant on the edge of town
along the
railway tracks that closed more than a decade ago. It once employed 750
people.
Today, the large, mostly abandoned space is rented out by a dental
supply
business based in Buffalo that has only twelve employees.

The prospect of gas
drilling in
this part of the state may also threaten the future of organic farming.
It has
arrived in the middle of a crippling depression for dairy farmers, most
of whom
have already leased their land (“We're
hugely in
favor of gas drilling,” Peter Gregg of the New York State Farm Bureau
told me
last year. “We see it as a big potential for extra income especially for
dairy
farmers who desperately need it. It turns out that a lot of the drilling
potential happens to lay underneath our farms.”) Earlier this year, a
dairy
farmer in upstate New York took a rifle and killed fifty-one of
his milk
cows before committing suicide. Milk prices are at levels last seen in
the
1970s and it is nearly impossible to make a living in this way.

And yet, the region’s
future could
still be shaped by a diversified agricultural economy, one that mixes
dairy
farming with value added products like cheese and yogurt, not to mention
fresh
produce. The Catskills and much of the southern tier are a ripe market
for New
York City restaurants and farmers’ markets (it was once called the
city’s
milkshed and egg basket). It’s the kind of economy that takes
generations to
build.

Gas drilling, on the
other hand, is
part of the boom and bust cycle of resource extraction. There will be a
boost
to the local economy. Hotels and restaurants will profit. Workers will
be flown
in from Western states to work two-week shifts and twelve to sixteen
hour days.
Most of them will go home for their two weeks off. Many local landowners
will
make out big (some are leasing their land for several thousand dollars
an
acre). But the environmental costs are potentially devastating. In the
last
year, the investigative web site ProPublica has documented more than a thousand cases
of water contamination related to gas
drilling, both from spills and underground seepage, across the country.

Gas drilling may also do in the
local real estate market. A local realtor told me recently that it is
difficult
to sell properties that have leases on them. Not because of the market,
but
because of the nature of the lease: the conditions are poor and people
don’t
want to inherit that lease (many landowners signed before they knew the
ins and
outs of the game and without a lawyer versed in the language of oil and
gas
extraction). At the same time, people aren’t interested in buying land
that may
be surrounded by gas wells. “I personally
think that
it's going to be difficult to sell properties,” he told me. “I think
it's
potentially harmful to the area.” So what happens to Hancock in twenty
years
when the gas companies have taken their lot and moved on? What will be
left?
And will the Upper Delaware be spared?

The
DRBC already faces a challenge from The Delaware River
Keeper Network
and
Nockamixon Township in Pennsylvania for a decision to allow a test well
in the
Township without DRBC review. The Upper Delaware’s fate will be decided
soon,
which is why American Rivers has named the river the nation’s most
endangered.

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