When the residents of Lynn Township, Lehigh County discovered E.coli in their water wells, they approached their township supervisors, asking them to tell a local farmer to stop using fertilizer made from treated sewage sludge that goes by the green- washed name biosolids. The fertilizer produced from the residue of the wastewater treatment process is a toxic mixture of human waste and everything else that goes down the drain of every home, hospital, business, school, and factory and has been linked to foodborne illnesses, respiratory infections, skin infections, neurological disorders, and other conditions. The township supervisors responded, correctly, that they have no authority over the use of sludge fertilizer. In 2005, the Pennsylvania legislature took that power away from municipalities with the passage of the ACRE law/Act 38. The Lynn Township story came to light just as Pennsylvanians were about to see more of their local control taken away, this time over unconventional natural gas drilling practices.
Just over the county line from Lynn Township, Berks County residents are very familiar with the ACRE law. Sludge fertilizer is used throughout the county (there are nearly 80 active permits). Since ACRE was passed, the United Sludge-Free Alliance (www.usludgefree.org) and other community groups fighting to see the practice banned have fought for the rights of locals to be restored, so they immediately understood the consequences of stripping municipalities of control over drilling. Berks Gas Truth (www.gastruth.org), a grassroots organization seeking a ban on drilling, participated in statewide efforts to stop the bill, but to no avail.
The new law exacts puny impact fees from the natural gas companies and, in exchange, makes Pennsylvanians everywhere vulnerable to their whims because the new law pertains to all drilling operations, including the laying of pipeline and many other projects that occur hundreds of miles from the nearest well pad. Imposing fees on drillers was a concession to the impacted communities in the Marcellus Shale region who have received no money since drilling began to deal with remediation of natural resources, but the removal of local control written into the bill was taken directly from Governor Tom Corbett’s proposal intended to level the regulatory playing field for drillers. When he was the Attorney General suing East Brunswick Township in Schuylkill County for trying to buck ACRE and restrict the use of sludge fertilizer, Corbett famously wrote, “There is no inalienable right to local self-government.”
In Berks County, the local control issues are better understood than the hazards of drilling. Berks County, like many nearby counties to the south and east are not in the Marcellus region. Drilling rigs aren’t sitting 300 feet from elementary schools. Methane migrating from the shattered shale isn’t contaminating groundwater. The air isn’t filled with the fumes of fracking wastewater left in open pits to evaporate. When the drillers decide to lay a pipeline near a playground or down Main Street in some town in Berks County, the residents will experience the double whammy of dealing with the multitude of safety concerns pipelines create and having no power to say no to the project.
A triple whammy was avoided at the end of last year when the Delaware River Basin Commission cancelled its vote on regulations that would have allowed drilling in the Basin and put the river and drinking water for 15 million people including most of the residents of Berks County at risk. A moratorium on drilling in the Basin remains in effect. Berks Gas Truth worked with a large coalition of environmental and social organizations to keep the moratorium in place. The groups are now collectively turning their attention to the Susquehanna River Basin to work toward similar protections.
- by Karen Feridun
Karen founded Berks Gas Truth and serves on the board of MAREA, the Mid-Atlantic Renewable Energy Association.