Delaware Riverkeeper Scores a Victory Against Fracking
Maya van Rossum pulls a yellow hardhat from the trunk of her Civic hybrid and walks purposefully through a gap in a wood fence, emerging into the middle of a natural gas pipeline construction site. The Delaware Riverkeeper is used to testing the notion that a hardhat and reflective vest can get you past a lot of fences. Not this time, though.
A woman who warily introduces herself as a representative of the site’s "safety and security" company intervenes, saying: "She can’t go out there. Even with a hardhat."
Van Rossum is back in the car a few minutes later, ready to try elsewhere. She’s come to northeastern Pennsylvania, in the Delaware River watershed, with two other employees of the nonprofit Delaware Riverkeeper Network to look at areas at risk from the potential dangers of natural gas drilling in the vast Marcellus Shale geological formation. At this particular stop, at the Wayne County Fairground, van Rossum wanted a closer look at a Tennessee Gas Pipeline project.
"You can’t take an industry’s word that they’re going to protect the environment," van Rossum says -- a sentiment that’s gaining more support in northeastern Pennsylvania as the region is transformed by efforts to tap deep natural gas reserves through a process called hydraulic fracturing. Fracking, as it’s known, requires injecting huge amounts of water mixed with sand and potentially toxic chemicals deep underground, breaking the shale rock and allowing the gas to flow out.
Concerns over fracking were set to come to a head today in Trenton, New Jersey, as the Delaware River Basin Commission, which includes representative from Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, and Delaware, was scheduled to adopt regulations that would allow drilling to proceed. A rally, organized by van Rossum and other environmental advocates, was expected to draw a large group of drilling opponents. The commission has received 69,000 public comments -- a record, van Rossum says -- over the past four months.
But last week, the commission’s vote was postponed indefinitely when Delaware Governor Jack Markell said he would vote against allowing drilling to proceed. (New York is also opposed.) That means that -- for now, at least -- a moratorium on drilling in the basin remains in place. Advocates celebrated the postponement last week, but warily. "It is not game over -- they could reschedule at any moment," van Rossum says. So she plans to continue to fight (the rally went on as scheduled today, albeit with a more celebratory tone), and keep making the argument that drilling isn’t safe in a watershed that provides drinking water to 15 million people in New York City, Philadelphia, and many points in between.
Geologists estimate that the vast Marcellus Shale formation, which underlies about 36 percent of the Delaware River watershed, contains somewhere between 84 and 410 trillion cubic feet of recoverable natural gas. To put that in perspective, the entire country produced only 27 trillion cubic feet of natural gas in 2010. As Pennsylvania has become a fracking epicenter, concerns about methane contamination, lax regulation, and spills, contamination, and fish kills in towns like Dimock and Bradford have put van Rossum at the center of the fight to keep the Delaware River safe from contamination.
The Riverkeeper and her organization are staunchly opposed to any and all drilling, because every well and its attendant infrastructure bring inherent risks to health and the environment, she says. "My job is to be the voice of the Delaware River."
Pixie With an Attitude
Thanks largely to parents who were using cloth bags at the grocery store before it was cool, Van Rossum knew early on that she wanted to work in environmental advocacy. She got a degree from Pace Law School with the vague idea of pursuing a career in environmental law. She never considered any other career path: "I only applied for jobs that were protective of the environment, and if I couldn’t find that type of job, I was fully committed to selling shoes."
In 1994, she joined the staff of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, based in Bristol, just north of Philadelphia, and less than two years later, the previous Riverkeeper handed her the reins. With her head-on approach, van Rossum has enjoyed substantial success. In 2009, she helped force a proposed casino along the Delaware’s banks to move back from the water’s edge and reduce its sewage discharge substantially. More recently, the Riverkeeper Network’s lawsuits convinced the EPA to craft new regulations for water intake at power plants, where billions of fish get sucked in and killed every year. She has helped prevent waste dumping, sued for protection of potentially endangered species, and forced the restoration of disturbed wetlands.
She’s succeeded in part by being focused and reasonable with her opponents. "I found her to be somebody that can disagree with you professionally without being disagreeable personally," says Ed Voigt, a spokesman for the Philadelphia office of the Army Corps of Engineers. Van Rossum has battled the Army Corps many times, most notably over a proposed deepening project on the Delaware. Bob Tudor, the deputy executive director of the Delware River Basin Commission, endorses a characterization he has heard others use for van Rossum: "A pixie with an attitude," he says. "I find that to be a pretty apt description of her."
I rode along with van Rossum, as well as citizen action coordinator Fred Stine and deputy director Tracy Carluccio, to see some of the spots the gas boom is already affecting -- and some of the pristine and beautiful corners of the Delaware watershed that might feel the effects if drilling were to move forward. The pipeline that van Rossum tried to observe more closely at the Wayne County Fairground crosses the Dyberry Creek, and Van Rossum and the others came away at least mildly mollified that the crew was sending the pipe under the soil beneath the creek instead of directly across it.
The pipelines springing up in the area are designed to improve the gas infrastructure in the Marcellus Shale region as drilling intensifies. Tennessee Gas Pipeline said in 2010 that it would be adding as much as one billion cubic feet per day of gas carrying capacity, in what its parent company’s CEO Doug Foshee called "safe and reliable transportation" for the gas. Pipelines are far from perfect, though, as incidents on the Yellowstone River in Montana and on the Kalamazoo in Michigan have recently shown. Even more recently, a gas pipeline owned by Tennessee Gas Pipeline exploded in Ohio last week, destroying three homes.
Later, as we ride up into the Poconos northeast of Scranton, van Rossum and Carluccio explain that thanks in large part to Riverkeeper advocacy, 197 miles of the Delaware have been designated by the Delaware River Basin Commission as "special protection waters" (the longest such stretch of any river in the nation, van Rossum says). This means, basically that no one is allowed to do anything to negatively impact the river’s high quality. Can gas drilling and the related wells, pipelines, trucks, and other activity take place without violating that prohibition? A bumper sticker on van Rossum’s car makes her position clear: "No Frackin’ Way."
And the evidence has mounted that she might be right, that fracking is risky, and that natural gas may not be the wonderful fossil fuel compromise that many people concerned about climate change and seeking a "bridge fuel" to renewable power would like it to be. In February of this year, the EPA succumbed to the pressure of that evidence and submitted a plan for a comprehensive study of fracking, looking in particular at the full lifecycle of the water that is used -- from the chemicals that get mixed with it and then injected into gas wells to how the wastewater that comes back up is disposed of. The agency expects results by the end of 2012, but until then, fracking continues apace around the country.
Won’t Get Fooled Again
Van Rossum says the Delaware’s protected status has so far held the drillers back within the watershed. But these are energy companies we’re talking about. The Riverkeeper Network has a staff of less than 20 and an annual budget of around $1.25 million, primarily from various foundations; ExxonMobil earned more than $10 billion in just the third quarter of 2011.
"It is definitely daunting," van Rossum says. "There is nothing easy about it. But what we’re banking on is that logic will win out."
To illustrate what they are up against, she and Carluccio tell a story about a hearing they attended in early June at a high school in Broome County, New York. XTO Energy, which was purchased in 2009 by ExxonMobil for $31 billion, had applied for a water withdrawal permit in anticipation of being allowed to drill. Van Rossum and Carluccio showed up hours early, to be sure they’d get the chance to speak during the hearing.
They were told they couldn’t yet line up at the door to the school because students were still inside. So they regrouped a block or two away, under the watchful eyes of the police. To ensure the integrity of the line as it began to grow, they made a list of who was in line, and in what order; there were anti-drilling and pro-drilling advocates, all waiting for their two minutes in front of the Delaware River Basin Commission.
When they finally were allowed to move toward the school, the efforts at bipartisan civility seemed wasted: a gaggle of pro-drilling people had somehow reached the door ahead of them, cutting the line and, as van Rossum says, changing the entire feel of the hearing. The first 20 people to speak all said largely the same thing, diminishing any impact when the other side finally got its chance. "We’ll never be duped like that again," van Rossum says.
As we talk, we pass a motel bearing a "Marcellus Shale Workers Welcome" sign. Clearly, there are those who feel the potential economic benefits of gas drilling outweigh the risks. Those drilling boosters who ended up at the front of the line -- however they may have gotten there -- included local business owners, small-town officials, and the like. David Sexton, a councilman for the small New York town of Sanford, told the hearing that "outside groups are imposing their broader ideologies on local decisions, drowning out the voices of those impacted most."
Van Rossum doesn’t buy the economic argument. "It just isn't OK to justify creation of a job when doing so means poisoning the air and water, and destroying the soils and forests that we all depend upon for life -- the sacrifice is just too great."
As we head back down the highway toward Philadelphia, leaving the pristine -- for now -- watershed behind us, van Rossum says she’s convinced that stopping hydrofracking in the watershed is a real possibility, despite the enormous economic interests arrayed against her. The Delaware governor’s decision may signal that she’s right. "The community voice became so loud and so insistent, and so well informed, that politicians couldn’t ignore it anymore." With an advocate like her, it’s hard to imagine they ever will again.