shale commission showdown

July 12, 2014

A Frostburg resident’s anger and frustration burst through the typically methodical proceedings of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission meeting Friday.

Gabriel Echeverri refused to wait six hours until the designated half hour at the end of the meeting when the public gets to speak. “I have an issue with you all debating for hours about the most publicly acceptable way of coming and destroying our homes and poisoning our waters while we have to sit here and listen to all of it,” he told the commission.

Chairman David Vanko tried several times to quiet him, noting that Echeverri didn’t have to “listen to all of it” — although Vanko added that he hoped he would.

“We do have to listen to all of it,” Echeverri said, “to wait ‘til the end, where you so magnanimously offer us the scraps of time left to say our little pittance.” Then he raised up a jug of murky brown water. “This is poison. This is mercury, this is uranium, radioactive,” said Echeverri, who in February was arrested in Cumberland with three others for civil disobedience while protesting Dominion’s plans to liquefy and export fracked gas from Cove Point. “You are talking about poisoning our waters, and poisoning our families, and poisoning our land.  And I refuse to accept that. I refuse to just sit here and listen while you do that.” At some point, a security guard slipped inside the lecture hall at Frostburg University’s Dunkle Hall.

Echeverri said he would leave, taking the jug with him “because I don’t trust you to deal with it properly.” Under the state’s proposed best practices, drillers would have to ship frack waste to other, more accommodating states, a plan Echeverri called “completely unacceptable.” Before heading out, he said, “I don’t know about you, but I say ‘No fracking, no compromise.’ ”

savage mountain earth first

Savage Mountain Earth First! logo.

As the commission rushes to complete its mission, area activists have taken note. On July 3, Savage Mountain Earth First! set up a Facebook community.  “We declare ourselves as a contingent of residents of western maryland who will not stand for the degradation of this land. No compromise,” the group’s page says. So far, 129 people have Liked the page. Over the July 4 holiday, two banners were hoisted on the overpass at Sideling Hill on I-68: “Welcome to Western Maryland” and “No Fracking Allowed!”

As Echeverri left and in the brief lull created while state agency computers were being hooked up, others also asked to speak, forcing a reversal of the usual agenda at the 30th meeting of the commission.

“I do not want fracking here,” said Susan Snow of Frostburg. Industry takes advantage of people who aren’t fully knowledgeable about fracking and then “destroys their land,” she said, leaving them unable to move. And if the gas is shipped overseas from the proposed export facility at Cove Point, Marylanders won’t even benefit. Only a few will get rich while the others suffer, she said. “I am very passionate about it because this is my home. … I say ‘No fracking, no way.’ “

“I want you to take in the whole human costs,” said Amy Fabbri of Allegany County. Extractive industries have long made the few rich while sickening residents and leaving behind ruined land. “I’m a mother, and I think long term,” she said.

Jim Guy of Oldtown in Allegany asked how the commission would determine what was an “unacceptable risk” and how it would decide if fracking would pose such a risk. The charge of the commission, according to Gov. Martin O’Malley’s 2011 executive order is to determine “whether and how” fracking can be accomplished without “unacceptable risks of adverse impacts” to public health and safety and the environment.

That’s a question the commission and state officials have for the most part dodged. Only because Commissioner Nick Weber pressed the issue of determining and analyzing risk at every opportunity did the Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) decide to conduct an in-house risk assessment. Once that report is complete, Weber said, the community will have to decide if it can tolerate the risks and if regulations will mitigate the risks sufficiently. If the community gets to decide.

Commissioner Ann Bristow said some studies have documented birth defects and low birth weights in fracking areas. The commission and then politicians will have to “weigh the lifetime of costs to the community against what would be gained” by a few people. “I’m not a politician,” she said. “I’m someone who is trying to work through a mountain of data that’s emerging.” And in the absence of science, best practices for fracking should not be accepted, she said.

As if on cue, though, the state’s “interim final” report of the how best to frack in Maryland was posted online yesterday. Interim, because the commission, MDE and the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) have yet to see, much less evaluate, the risk assessment, the final health study and a traffic study. The report identifies “practices that we believe will be as protective, or more protective, than those in place currently in other states,” according to a letter submitted with the report from the heads of DNR and MDE.

The whole discussion brought the commission full circle to reflect for an illuminating moment on what, precisely, had been its mission for the past three years. Commissioner Harry Weiss, a Pennsylvania attorney, said he thought the commission was to assume fracking would happen and make recommendations. Over the years, others have expressed similar sentiment. The confusion perhaps arises from the full title of the commission, Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission — even though no one has determined that “safe drilling” is possible and many studies have suggested the opposite.

But Vanko said the commission was “not asked to assume drilling” would happen and was charged with advising  MDE and DNR.

“You need to say this is unacceptable,” Susan Snow said.

“We might do that,” Vanko said.

“That would be awesome,” Snow said.

“We could say that we don’t believe it’s an unacceptable risk,” Weiss said.

Or the commission might not be able to reach a consensus, Vanko said.

Bristow said she wasn’t convinced that fracking would be permitted. During the years that the commission has been working, research has begun to emerge — in spite of industry’s attempts to stop it through gag orders and nondisclosure agreements. “We just know the tip of the iceberg,” she said. “I don’t’ buy that [fracking in Maryland] is a foregone conclusion.”

MDE and DNR are a couple months from issuing a final report based on the commission’s work. The last scheduled meeting is in September, and MDE senior policy adviser Brigid Kenney said a final report would probably be the topic of the October meeting.

Revealing how much is at stake, the meeting included a slide show from a field trip last month to fracked communities in West Virginia. Some commissioners and MDE and DNR staff had previously been on a Chevron-choreographed tour of a Pennsylvania frack site. “A very nice tour,” Vanko said. This time the host was West Virginia Host Farms, a group of concerned landowners living with fracking. This tour was not so nice. Water buffaloes (wrapped for heating) were visible at homes in several areas. Residents didn’t know what had happened to the water; the company had just provided replacement water. It was all a big secret. Commissioners said they had counted many, many trucks on the roads. They saw a couple frack pads as well as large tanks called shark tanks, for holding wastewater. They saw staging areas with many tanks and pipes. Vented tanks had a strong odor. Potholes. Buckled asphalt that scraped the bottom of the commissioners’ vehicle. Vanko reported a high level of suspicion between the drillers and the tour hosts and commissioners. Lots of erosion. Loud compressor stations that run round-the-clock. Several commissioners noted that Maryland would not allow some of those practices, including all that erosion.

“In a state without regulations, industry is doing exactly what it wants,” said Bristow, who went on the field trip. “I see no data on the ground of industry doing any more than they are forced to do,” she said, “because the name of the game is to get as much out of the ground as fast as they can.” Maryland might claim superiority, she said, but consider the comparison.

Being somewhat better than West Virginia and other states is still abysmal.

–elisabeth hoffman

 

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One Response to “shale commission showdown”

  1. V Appalachia said

    Thank you, Gabriel Echeverri, for saying what needs to be said. And for saying it so well.

    Really, Commissioner Weiss? The Commission might not “believe” fracking is an unacceptable risk? Easy for you to say. Do you live on a shale play?

    How about the O’Malley Administration giving a lot more credence to those of us who do.

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