mchenry

At the meeting in McHenry, Gabe Echeverri asked all who supported a ban to stand.

If Secretary of the Environment Ben Grumbles is doing his job, he is probably meeting with Gov. Larry Hogan this week to deliver the message: “Mr. Governor, we have a problem.”

The issue papers outlining how the Hogan administration would welcome frackers to our state have been met with a resounding “NO.”

And last night, in front of an exuberant and even tearful room of residents, the Town Council of Friendsville in Garrett County voted 5-1 to ban fracking, following in the footsteps of Mountain Lake Park, which said no to fracking in 2011. Both towns lie over the Marcellus Shale gas basin. Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, on top of the Taylorsville and Culpeper shale basins,  also have put in place local bans.

friendsville frack ban

There was much joy in Friendsville when the Town Council passed a ban.

 t h e   o u t c r y

During three public meetings — in Cumberland, Baltimore and McHenry — over two weeks, MDE Secretary Grumbles and his staff got an earful of reasoned testimony and impassioned pleas from hundreds of people, including property owners, realtors and other business owners, health professionals, activists, people who had rejected leasing their land and those who regretted leasing their land, retirees and 20-somethings. They even heard an anti-fracking song from a guitar-strumming George Polimenakos, an adventure sports guide in Garrett County’s thriving tourism industry.

At the Baltimore hearing, a landowner and two gas workers from fracked Pennsylvania issued dire warnings. Before the meeting in McHenry at Garrett College, opponents brought a dog and pony (in truth, a miniature horse) to illustrate exactly what they thought of MDE’s attempt to bamboozle the public with its PowerPoint and talking points.

dog and pony

MDE put on a third fracking-regs dog and pony show at Garrett College in McHenry.

During the MDE meeting at Garrett College in McHenry, the publisher of the local weekly newspaper, Don Sincell, seethed at the agency and elected officials, listing the many harms from fracking — from destroyed roads, contaminated streams and water wells, air pollution, trucks “barreling down” rural roads, unsightly well pads, noise and light pollution, and health hazards for local residents, particularly children and pregnant women;  to “plummeting property values” and “the probable loss of Garrett County’s more than 100-year-old recognition as a ‘destination point.’ ”

Only a ban could prevent these threats, Sincell said, adding: “But I can’t even begin to put into words the level of disappointment I have in our own elected officials, who in my opinion are selling us out, and that includes our own senator [George Edwards], especially our own delegate [Wendell Beitzel], and yes, even our fence-riding Garrett County commissioners, all of whom took an oath to keep their constituents safe. I am truly furious about it, and it makes me sick at heart.”

t h e   i s s u e   p a p e r s

The issue papers examine four areas from the January 2015 regulations, which were proposed by Gov. Martin O’Malley and then put on hold by Governor Hogan. The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) plans to tighten a single regulation — the agency would require a fourth layer of casing around the drill, with all layers of casing and cement running to the surface — and then gut many of the already inadequate O’Malley proposals.

  • MDE would reduce or even eliminate some setbacks so they are “more in line with the requirements of surrounding states,” an unnerving pledge given the ongoing disaster in Pennsylvaniathe epicenter of what can only be called a fracking rebellion — and in West Virginia. Fracking could be closer to private drinking water wells, 1,000 feet instead of 2,000 feet. The state would eliminate all automatic setbacks from cultural or historical sites, parks, trails, wildlife management areas, wild and scenic rivers, and scenic byways. From most wetlands, the setback would be 25 feet. “I can spit farther than 25 feet,” said Frostburg resident Gabe Echeverri at the McHenry meeting. If not “feasible,” some setbacks would be expendable, MDE says — all in the name of “enhanced flexibility” and “balance,” as if we were taking a yoga class. They are designed for “simplification” and “customer service,” but the only customer in mind is the fracking industry.
  • MDE would also eliminate requirements for air monitoring because it is content to use readings from the MDE station at the Frostburg Dam and the mobile National Energy Technology Laboratory equipment. “That’s the same as monitoring Frederick County from the center of Ravens Stadium,” Mary Helen Spear complained at the Garrett College meeting. The proposal conveniently disregards research showing that even existing monitoring fails to detect spikes in emissions that could account for residents’ complaints about nose bleeds, nausea, abdominal pain, and breathing difficulties near fracking operations.
  • MDE would also reduce the number of steps needed to get permits to frack under Comprehensive Development Plans (CDPs), including taking the Department of Natural Resources out of the loop. MDE “should explain why ANY relaxations are sufficiently protective,” said Brigid Kenney, an adviser to Governor O’Malley’s 15-member Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative who retired from MDE as Governor Hogan was taking office. The shale advisory commission had concluded that the risks could be managed, she said, only if all the conditions were met. In particular, she said, the MDE proposals “render [the CDP] a toothless tiger.”

bam

s o   m a n y   p r o b l e m s   i g n o r e d

Yet MDE’s issue papers are flawed even at their premise, namely that the shale advisory commission concluded in 2014, after three years of work, that “the risks of Marcellus Shale development can be managed to an acceptable level.” The commission reached no such conclusion. It was sharply divided, as were the residents of this state. However, the most recent poll, in 2015, shows opposition increasing, with about two-thirds of those surveyed favoring a long-term moratorium or outright ban.

And improving casings, the linchpin upon which MDE walks back even a semblance of protection, can’t resolve the inherent problem of leaking wells.

Speaking in McHenry, Rob Smith, a homebuilder and retired building inspector, took aim at the well-casing proposal. He said every homeowner asks him for a guarantee that the concrete slab won’t crack. “The only thing I can guarantee is that your concrete slab WILL crack,” he said. “The only thing concrete is good for is cracking.”

Offering a more scientific assessment is Anthony Ingraffea, PhD, a Cornell engineering professor, president of Physicians, Scientists and Engineers for Healthy Energy, and former oil and gas industry insider. Asked about the well-casing proposal, he wrote in an email that while that plan is an improvement over the 2015 proposal, “I saw nothing in the 2015 proposal, or in this suggested revision, that will address the inevitability of a well found to be leaking, despite all the layers of casing and cement. It will happen, because designs on paper can never be executed as planned every time, and forever.  This is the reality of constructing and operating a well, any well. The PA DEP [Department of Environmental Protection] can confirm that even with their tough construction regs, they are still observing leaking wells.”

Still unanswered, Ingraffea said, is “What will be required of the operator when all the post construction testing shows a leaking well? What methods will be used in the years after construction, but during production, to determine if a well is leaking? What methods will be used in the years after production, and after ‘plugging’, to determine if a well is leaking? How far will the regulator go in forcing the operator to mitigate the leak? What happens if the leak is not fixable?  When/how will owners of nearby (2500ft?) water wells be notified of a potential impact to their supplies?  All these questions are always left unanswered by regs everywhere, and become the sources of consternation, frustration, vague actions, delays, lawsuits….”

Not to mention the blossoming on yards of replacement water supplies known as water buffaloes, communities relying on church donations for water for years, the difficulty getting home insurance, and the decline in property values.

In addition, MDE has ignored all the research since the O’Malley proposal that shows clearly the folly of fracking. In 2015, 226 studies were published, with most showing harm from fracking. (A summary of studies and reports through the first six months of 2015 is here.)

In October 2015,  Johns Hopkins research found that proximity to wells is associated with premature births. Brian Schwartz, MD, the study leader and a professor in the Department of Environmental Health Sciences at the Bloomberg School, said in a press release: “The growth in the fracking industry has gotten way out ahead of our ability to assess what the environmental and, just as importantly, public health impacts are. More than 8,000 unconventional gas wells have been drilled in Pennsylvania alone and we’re allowing this while knowing almost nothing about what it can do to health. Our research adds evidence to the very few studies that have been done in showing adverse health outcomes associated with the fracking industry.”

Ann Bristow, PhD, a member of the shale advisory commission, noted that health officials warn women to stay away from countries where they could be infected with the Zika virus — to avoid risk of devastating birth defects. In fracked Pennsylvania, Bristow said at the McHenry hearing, “women are leaving their homes to carry out their pregnancies elsewhere – if they can afford it. If we frack, we need to advise women to get the hell out of here.”

MDE employees, she said, have an “ethical and moral responsibility” to acknowledge that no evidence shows an additional well casing would provide any protection. “All your relaxings are based on that one thing that has no empirical support,” Bristow said. Fracking “will not be regulated in Maryland because, by God, we are going to ban it.”

A handful of fracking proponents spoke at the McHenry meeting, such as Bob Paye, an attorney with the Energy and Property Rights Coalition, who characterized opponents as “people who listen to fear-mongering.”  Billy Bishoff of the Garrett County Farm Bureau applauded MDE’s proposals while calling for still weaker setbacks. Garrett resident Shawn Bender, a member of the shale advisory commission who works in the oil and gas industry, questioned MDE’s putting any county watersheds off limits from fracking. Under the O’Malley and Hogan MDE proposals, fracking would be prohibited in the Broadford Lake, Piney, and Savage Reservoir watersheds. While opponents seized on that restriction to argue that what’s unsafe for those watersheds is unsafe for rest of the county and state, Bender turned that logic upside down — agreeing that if particular watersheds need protection, that would suggest that fracking was unsafe, but then concluding that fracking should therefore be allowed everywhere.

MDE has also ignored the ever louder signals of climate gone haywire – the increase in forest fires, droughts, floods, storms, species extinction —  as well as the commitment of nations to keep warming preferably below 1.5 degrees C. That can’t be achieved by doubling down on yet another fossil fuel.

All this in the name of jobs is the final insult. The blame for the loss of jobs lies with the fossil fuel giants such as Exxon that knew but suppressed the science about climate change. If we had started this transition in the 1970s, the pain – in jobs lost and our health in jeopardy would not be so great now.

Those dangerous fracking jobs only tie us to the past. As Dana Shimrock, retired librarian in Garrett County, said at the McHenry meeting: “Young people in the county….are not looking for jobs in the fracking industry. They are much more progressive. They have great ideas. Let’s start listening to them. “

Email your comments to marcellus.mde@maryland.gov  through July 18.

— by elisabeth hoffman