Major advances in water quality protection

By votes of 4-1, the Independent Regulatory Review Commission (IRRC) on Friday passed two key new regulations that will strengthen protections on drinking water and watersheds from natural gas drilling pollution as well as other new development projects.

The new drilling rules require treatment of highly saline wastewater so as to meet drinking water standards if they want to dispose of it in Pennsylvania’s waterways. Natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale of Pennsylvania has become greatly scrutinized due to the immense quantities of water used in the process, the chemical additives employed, and the manner of treatment. Between 2 and 9 million gallons are used to “frack” each well in order to release the natural gas deposits. That water is injected with a coctail of chemicals and salts. Some water flows back up and is collected in storage ponds for re-use or treatment. These rules affect the manner in which the water is treated and disposed of into Pennsylvania’s more than 85,000 miles of streams.

The second set of changes to Chapter 102 state regulations approved by the IRRC will require some developers to maintain or create a 150-foot natural vegetative buffer beside Pennsylvania’s best rivers and streams. These rules affect so-called E&S permitting or Erosion and Sedimentation Control measures implemented with construction projects to reduce impact on streams and rivers. Streams in the top 20% statewide for water quality will be subject to the increased protections. Streamside buffers are widely considered to be the best and most effective long-term solution for protection water quality. Buffers help filter water, reduce the impacts of flooding, shade and reduce water temperatures creating better habitat for fish and aquatic species. Clean Water Action says that over 200 municipalities require buffers with 63 requiring at least 100 foot buffers.

The possibility of an impact fee on corporate drilling revenues remains unclear and while supported by the Governor is mired in budget debates and discussion over how to spend the expected hundreds of millions in revenues.

The IRRC is the last step in regulatory review process and is made up of five individuals – four from each of the Assembly’s caucuses (Democrat and Republican in both the Senate and House), as well as an appointee from the Governor. Its mission is to ensure new regulations are consistent with public interest and legislative intent.