State vs. Fed well regulation debate reaches U.S. House
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WASHINGTON -- Members of a U.S. House subcommittee and witnesses agreed Wednesday about the need to protect public water supplies in states where natural gas wells are proliferating, but they were divided over who should do it.
Pennsylvania Environmental Protection Secretary Michael Krancer was among witnesses who said the states are better equipped to regulate hydraulic fracturing and they've already shown they can do it well. Others disagreed and said the issue should be handled at the federal level.
"The myth that terrible chemicals are getting into the groundwater is completely myth. It is bogus," Mr. Krancer told the Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment. He said sand and water comprise 99.5 percent of mixtures blasted into wells to free gas from the Marcellus Shale.
Some congressmen, though, are concerned about what's in the other half percent. Rep. Tim Bishop, D-N.Y., suggested it's a "largely unknown cocktail of chemicals and pollutants" that the federal government has a role in regulating.
The hearing came three weeks after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced plans to develop new rules for the disposal of fracking wastewater.
States and federal agencies each have critical and complementary roles in ensuring gas extraction occurs safely, testified Jim Hanlon, director of the EPA's Office of Wastewater Management. EPA officials have concerns, he said, that current treatment facilities don't effectively remove contaminants from discharge.
He said the agency would propose regulations that utilize the best technology economically available.
"We will use our authority, consistent with the law and best available science, to protect communities across the nation from potential impacts to water quality, human health and the environment," Mr. Hanlon said.
The state House and Senate have been debating separate bills this week to establish tougher environmental safeguards. They hope to have something in place by the end of the year.
The federal hearing Wednesday grew contentious at moments, with Mr. Krancer and Mr. Bishop talking over each other.
"Do you not see the legitimacy of a minimum national standard?" the congressman asked pointedly.
Mr. Krancer responded that each state has unique geography and specialized needs. He said states are doing a fine job regulating already and that Pennsylvania is a model for others.
"All of that sounds, to me, perfectly reasonable and laudable," Mr. Bishop interrupted. "My question is: Why would you not want your neighboring states to have the same [standards] that Pennsylvania has? ... If New York decides they don't care about environmental standards at all and they are not going to adopt the standards Pennsylvania has adopted or be anywhere near as concerned as Pennsylvania is, does that not have an impact on Pennsylvania water?"
Mr. Krancer said he wouldn't respond to a hypothetical question, but he suggested that he and the congressman have a philosophical difference about federalism.
"The EPA needs to be respectful of the job the states have been doing for years [and with specialized knowledge of] their unique topography, geography and meteorology," he said in an interview after the hearing. "One size does not fit all."
U.S. Reps. Bill Shuster, R-Blair, and Jason Altmire, D-McCandless, sided with their home-state DEP secretary.
Mr. Shuster called concerns over environmental contamination unfounded "hysteria" based on misinformation. He said local regulators know best and that he would "fight the federal government" to preserve local control.
"I don't believe somebody sitting in Washington, D.C., is better equipped or more dedicated than the folks at the Pennsylvania DEP or local elected officials in protecting the water of our citizens," he said. "Pennsylvania can decide best how to regulate its natural gas industry."
Mr. Altmire said local regulators can best strike a balance between environmental protection and industrial development based on circumstances unique to each state.
First Published November 17, 2011 12:00 am