Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Greed and Expediency

By Tanya Wagner
Sierra Club Member, Hampden Township

*Below is testimony presented at the public hearing of the Environmental Quality Board (EQB) in Mechanicsburg on January 16, 2014. The testimony is in response to the EQB's proposed oil and gas regulations. Sierra Club talking points can be found here.*

Good evening, I’m Tanya Wagner from Hampden Township.
I assumed that most testimony given tonight would be empirical in nature. So, I choose to speak more philosophically, because actions are guided by values, and legislation is crafted not just from knowledge, but influenced by attitude and moral integrity. That said, I believe it’s time we undertake bolder efforts to put tougher, more specific language in these proposed regulations. If we can’t balance public health and land stewardship concerns with economic growth and the search for new energy sources, Pennsylvanians will pay a price that we and our offspring will sorely regret.
I speak with confidence because, as 300,000 West Virginians were learning of a chemical spill that rendered their water virtually untouchable, the U.S. House of Representatives was hard at work gutting the Federal Hazardous-waste Cleanup Act. How ironic! If their bill becomes law, it will seriously erode the federal government’s ability to help PA residents if a similar disaster were to happen here. We could be in dire straits unless we get our own house in order, and fast.
The Elk River spill in WVA, while not due to fracking, is a cautionary tale, because the CEO of the company responsible is considering bankruptcy. Consequently, he won’t be paying for cleanup, and just like WVA, PA has not required mine and related company owners to establish a remediation fund for accidents that may well devastate our water supply. Yes, they pay an impact fee, but that’s simply for mitigating day-to-day wear and tear on a community’s infrastructure.
It’s reported that a legislative plan is evolving to entice drillers to substitute “mine-influenced water” (better known as acid mine drainage) for their fracking process in place of clean water. While that sounds like a tantalizing concept on its face, a tricky use of the term “beneficial” in the plan’s text, and a proposal to exempt companies who would agree to use this stuff from liability clearly doesn’t.

Much is promised by operators and legislators, and agency spokesmen assure us that all is well; however, I suffer cognitive dissonance when reviewing information that contradicts the pro-fracking message, such as countless violations, token penalties, inadequate rules for safe use and disposal of hazardous substances, danger from orphan and abandoned wells, methane migration, and wording in laws that smacks of bias favoring mine operators over public health and environmental safety. Just one issue I shudder to think about is: what happens if we permit long-term burial of waste pits and toxic or radioactive materials like drill cuttings? Why, we could create sites like the infamous Love Canal, which, quoting NY’s health commissioner, “remains as a national symbol of failure to exercise concern for future generations” Is that how we want to be remembered? 
I’m no expert, but distance and location limits listed in these proposed regulations seem uncomfortably close to areas they’re designed to protect, and they’re accompanied by vague enforcement language. Won’t such a laissez-faire approach just invite less safety and more risk?
I’m troubled, too, when many people (including elected officials) willingly accept drillers’ assurances of safety. For me, their credibility sank after hearing that the industry hired the same public relations firm tobacco executives employed back in 1994: yes, the very ones who raised their hands at a congressional hearing, and under oath, stated “I believe that nicotine is not addictive”.
On that note, I’ll close by sharing 2 wise and very relevant proverbs: first, it seems the only thing we’ve learned from history is that we don’t learn from history at all, and second, humans come to their moment of clarity only through pain and humiliation. Sadly, their own, and not someone else’s. My hope is that these tendencies can be reversed in this crucial matter; and that wisdom, foresight, and courage will prevail over greed and expediency. Our land, our citizens…and…even mine operators, will be the better for it. Thank you.

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