HARRISBURG, Pa. — Pennsylvania’s state environmental regulators have agreed to take more precautions before they approve certain permits for oil and natural-gas drilling sites where well construction poses a pollution threat to some of the state’s highest-quality waterways.
The state Department of Environmental Protection agreed to the measures to settle a complaint by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation first filed in 2009 that also asserted the agency had approved three deficient permit applications. The settlement essentially reverses some steps the department took to speed up the permitting process for Pennsylvania’s booming natural gas industry.
The settlement, dated Wednesday, was approved by an Environmental Hearing Board judge. The resulting stricter review process could take up to 60 days. Currently, those permits can get approved in a matter of two weeks.
“It’s important to give the DEP more time to look at everything,” foundation lawyer Amy McDonnell said.
Under the settlement, the department will require the stronger review if well or pipeline construction poses the potential to pollute a high-quality waterway, or is on a flood plain or on a contaminated site near a waterway.
The DEP will have to decide how close a project has to be to warrant more scrutiny, McDonnell said. Current state law dictates that no well may be prepared or drilled within 100 feet of any waterway, though a number of lawmakers, as well as the DEP, have proposed expanding that buffer.
In 2009, the DEP took steps to speed up reviews of permits for well-related construction. However, the foundation had complained that, with a technical review, fast-tracking the permit reviews of erosion, sediment and stormwater control plans was illegal.
Major drilling companies began descending on Pennsylvania in earnest in 2008 to exploit the Marcellus Shale formation, regarded as the nation’s largest-known natural gas reservoir.
It lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the past three years and thousands more planned in the coming years as thick shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful and profitable source of natural gas.
For decades, energy companies have drilled shallow oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania. But the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which involves the use of chemicals and produces millions of gallons of often-toxic wastewater, in the Marcellus Shale formation has sparked fresh environmental concerns about the protection of public waterways that provide drinking water to millions of people.