Activists protest shale panel meeting

Session extended for dozens of speakers

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HARRISBURG -- Anti-drilling groups lack an official spot on the state's Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, but at Wednesday's meeting, they found plenty of ways to make their presence known.

As the panel focused its second full session on environmental effects from natural gas drilling, protesters rallied outside and repeatedly interrupted presentations to voice their concerns. With dozens signed up for the afternoon public comment period, the commission extended its meeting by more than an hour to accommodate the speakers.

Many of the remarks were tinged with anger toward what they saw as a panel stacked with drilling executives, who they felt would protect businesses over public safety.

"This is all about how do we make this better for the industry?" said Dana Dolney, of the Pittsburgh-based Marcellus Protest. "What about us? What about the people who are relying on you?"

Lt. Gov. Jim Cawley, who leads the commission, listened and occasionally responded to the often-combative commenters. He later questioned whether "science and fact" back up some of the assertions, but said the panel was "sensitive" to the need to hear all sides.

The commission, created by Gov. Tom Corbett in March, is in the process of gathering information on oversight and effects of shale drilling. The group of government, industry and environmental officials is tasked with recommending policy changes to the governor by late July.

Some regulatory changes have been put in place as the panel continues its review. The Department of Environmental Protection called on drillers last week to voluntarily stop sending briny wastewater to sewage treatment plants.

Several state environmental groups commended that action, which DEP Secretary Michael Krancer said Wednesday drew "compliance within 28 hours instead of 28 months."

But as the panel heard about a method for treating wastewater on-site, many of the protesters and commenters outside criticized the DEP for its softer approach. They argued that companies should have been told, not asked, how to handle the fluid used in hydraulic fracturing.

"It's not water -- it's toxic fluid that flows back!" shouted Conrad Volz, a professor from the University of Pittsburgh's School of Public Health, during the noon rally outside the commission's meeting.

But when one presenter, Jerry Mead of The Academy of Natural Sciences, said his graduate student had documented instances of leaking fracking fluid, Mr. Krancer quickly responded that the agency will not be shy with enforcement.

"If you give me those pictures, we will go after those operators and we will fine them," he said.

Tough words didn't sway Mr. Volz, who described the panel as "fatally flawed" for not including any public health officials. Others used stronger language, referring to the commission as "a sham."

The upset crowd grew frustrated as it moved inside, and was denied entry to the packed meeting room. Dozens filled a hallway, delaying the afternoon session from getting under way and heckling commission members as they tried to squeeze through the crowd.

One local activist, Gene Stilp, walked into the morning session and began handing out "delinquent drilling tax bills." He was quickly escorted out of the room after saying the lieutenant governor was a "prostitute," because of the campaign contributions that Mr. Cawley and Mr. Corbett received from the gas industry.

On criticism that some of the companies represented on the panel were donors to the administration and had a large number of environmental citations, Mr. Cawley said those violations show that the governor's donors still must follow state laws.

Jessica Buckland, a mother from Centre County, choked up as she talked about her 3-year-old son and her passion for mountain biking.

"You buy politicians and favors -- I don't have that kind of clout," Ms. Buckland said. "But I do have something that you do not: fierce love for my state and land."

Not all of the commenters were opposed to drilling. Jackie Root, a Tioga County resident representing a new landowners group, said the commission also needs to hear from those who have benefited from leasing. Development should be managed, not banned, she said, adding that a moratorium on drilling would "impinge on our rights to develop our assets."

For the state's forestland, that development process is limited, at least for now. The acting secretary for the Department of Conservation and Natural Resources told the group that there are no current plans for additional leases. He added that any future lease plans would aim to avoid any further surface disturbance by reusing well pads.


Laura Olson: lolson@post-gazette.com or 1-717-787-4254.


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