Riverkeeper's note: This is the second of a two-part package looking at under-river gas extraction leases. It is a first-hand commentary by Riverkeeper John Zaktansky in response to the initial report, available here.
On January 22, 1959, coal miners in Luzerne County illegally dug under the Susquehanna River, so close to the river’s wall that it collapsed, causing a watery whirlpool that flooded the mine shafts and killed 12.
Decades later, some historians consider the Knox Mine Disaster the death knell for coal mining in Northeast Pennsylvania, and we are still seeing impacts of abandoned mine drainage issues that can be traced back to that specific event.
At the very least, the disaster provides an important environmental cautionary tale, one that immediately came to mind as I opened a Google Alert that took me to a tiny one-sentence “press release” on the fracking industry website marcellusdrilling.com in late November.
The headline: “PA DCNR Leases Part of Susquehanna River for Drilling for $794K.” The blurb was pulled from a short notice by DCNR two days earlier on the PA Bulletin, a place where state agencies share updates.
It didn’t make sense … the state allowed companies to extract gas from under the river?
I reached out to DCNR, DEP and some other officials and received the confirmation I was hoping I’d never get. The state not only leased 198.5 acres of the river itself this past year to a gas company but had actually signed several other similar leases along the North Branch totaling more than 2,800 acres – along with an additional 700 acres of smaller tributaries via 12 more leases – all dating back to 2010.
The leases allow companies to actively extract gas via horizontal rigs that can run miles. This is done usually around 7,000 to 8,000 feet below the river (or stream) bed. While that is a far cry from the Knox Mine coal miners who were digging much closer to the river’s wall, it still feels like another cautionary tale in the making.
Two major questions overshadowed much of my question-asking and research over the past month. The first … why? Don’t we have enough land already devoted to fracking/gas extraction that we don’t need to violate the narrow channels marked by our river and its tributaries?
I get that our state is covered by an intricate spider web of rivers, creeks, streams, springs, runs and other channels of moving water. Gas that is fracked at one location needs to be transported to another, and crossing a waterway is basically inevitable, but why can’t those spots of transition be simple pipelines to transport resources from one side of the stream to the other?
Loss of gas royalties extracted directly below the river may cut into the state’s potential revenue, but like the common denominator for too many other environmentally charged situations, what is an appropriate price tag to put on our natural resources? What dollar amount makes it OK to risk those resources by signing over certain rights and abilities to pilfer the land below our river channel?
It is encouraging to know that while this practice has been happening since 2010, there are no known instances – yet – where under-river gas extraction has negatively impacted the surface water. However, that three-letter word, “yet,” is a pretty loaded one. It suggests the potential of it still happening in the future. Even stating that there are no “known” impacts leaves open the possibility of countless unknown issues percolating into our waterways.
Which leads to the other glaring question that keeps nagging me as I learn more about the under-river leases – why do so few people know about this?
Shortly after seeing that Google Alert in late November, I began reaching out to numerous people I have grown to respect in terms of their experience of dealing with waterway issues and their devotion to our river-based resources: County conservation district staff, watershed association officers who are doing numerous boots-on-the-ground projects to stabilize streambanks and counteract pollution in their backyard tributaries, other volunteers who spend oodles of time on our waters and passionately care about these resources.
Out of nearly two dozen people I approached who are plugged into all things aquatic, none of them knew the state was authorizing leases to allow gas extraction under our waterways. That includes all three county conservation district watershed specialists I was able to reach out of the four-county region of the North Branch where these leases are being executed and carried out.
How can that be? How can something that has been going on for more than a decade fly so far below the radar of the people who spend the most time in the waterways where this is happening? These are the front-line individuals who spend countless hours enjoying and protecting our aquatic resources and would be best suited to provide data on whether or not there are any negative impacts connected to under-river gas extraction.
For the record, the state itself – directed by the governor – is the driving force for these leases, not DCNR. That agency is simply given authority to carry out the lease decisions that come from higher up. And DCNR does offer an oil and gas webpage with updates. Obviously, they did put out a notice on the PA Bulletin on Nov. 20 about the most recent lease – however, it was eight months after that lease was already executed.
I have been told that the state wants to be transparent with these sort of leases – and yet, I only found out about it because of a tiny, one-sentence release ironically published by the gas industry website. If it was only me that was in the dark, I’d accept that. However, there are too many others within the "environmental industry" who have no idea about this.
Transparency means doing more than simply the bare minimum in getting out the word about any topic, especially one that has the potential of extracting gas directly below our waterways, and possible impacts to water flows and characteristics, as well as to all the life that depends on an affected waterway.
The state needs to, at the very least, make a better effort to educate county conservation district staff, county officials, other major players and the public at large. How could that be done? I am not completely sure, but it should start with more explicit publicity making its way to local media sources and shared online. Groups like ours are more than willing to help develop better ways to streamline that info so more people are aware of what is going on.
Will that cause additional complications to an already complicated processes for potentially controversial things like under-river gas extraction? Probably.
However, the only reason the state is allowed to enter into these leases is because the river has been deemed “legally navigable” by the state Supreme Court – meaning that it and similarly labeled tributaries are the property of the citizens of our Commonwealth. Shouldn't the citizens have better information of what is being done with these properties and the potential threats for the aquatic resources that depend on them?
Correlating the Knox Mine Disaster to this under-river gas extraction lease situation may be an apples-to-oranges comparison in a variety of ways, but there are still a few unfortunate common threads that seem to weave through both. Companies continue to push environmental boundaries in order to extract resources that help line their pockets. Also, there continues to be a lack of information about these efforts reaching those who need to know.
How many more cautionary tales do we – and our natural resources – need to endure before we learn from the past and protect the future?
John Zaktansky is an award-winning journalist and avid promoter of the outdoors who loves camping, kayaking, fishing and hunting with the family.