LOCK HAVEN - The Clinton County Planning Commission walked away from Tuesday evening's meeting with plenty of unanswered questions, a host of concerns and a strongly-expressed desire for answers and more time - all accompanying a large company's desire to drill for natural gas in central Pennsylvania.
The commission actually examined three related concepts attached to the drilling operation: Where and how the company will obtain the 4 million gallons of water a day it needs for the operation, how it will run its operation on site, and what it's going to do with the contaminated water and sludge generated by the drilling process.
Earlier this year, the company announced it plans to draw water from creeks, streams and lakes in Clinton, Lycoming and Centre counties.
The water would be used in a process called hydro-fracturing, or "frac" drilling as it's known in the business. The process involves injecting large volumes of water underground to fracture the shale formation and stimulate the flow of natural gas.
In a new twist, Anadarko E&P Co. LP, announced this week it also plans to seek approval for consumptive use of water contained from a public supply system for use in drilling and development of natural gas exploration wells in Beech Creek Township.
After the drilling, the water is not considered reasonably available for future use - making such water withdrawals "consumptive" under state definitions.
Just this week, the company recently expanded its proposal by asking to use water obtained from the following public water supply systems:
n Up to 500,000 gallons per day from the Jersey Shore Area Joint Water Authority
n Up to 400,000 gallons per day from the Montoursville water system.
The peak day consumption from all resources would not exceed 5 million, according to company officials
County Planner Tim Holladay said it appears the company is developing an alternative to withdrawal from the Susquehanna River and nearby creeks while keeping its first option open.
In any case, the commission members expressed frustration at the lack of information attached to the proposal, even while county Commissioner Adam Coleman, who attended the meeting, assured them the state Department of Environmental Protection had all bases covered on this one and would not issue any permits until the company finalizes the plan "from 'A' to 'Z.'"
Board member David Glessner wondered aloud whether the proposed water treatment facilities would be permanent or temporary, and Coleman replied the company was forwarding several proposals and keeping its options open.
"I don't have enough information to make an intelligent decision on this," Glessner said. "We need information so we can make wise land-use recommendations."
"DEP is watching things very closely, and they are really on top of this," Coleman said.
"Marcellus shale is known to be radioactive," Commission Chairman Charles Sweeney said. "My concern is the holding ponds, which I believe will need bonding, and limits should be placed on the amount of time they are allowed to be there."
"It's my understanding that it's (the sludge and water) pretty rough stuff," Glessner said. "We have to make sure our people aren't holding the bag."
Coleman agreed with snowmobiling, hiking and other recreational pursuits being developed in the region, "we need to keep this as pristine as we possibly can."
Sweeney pointed to the recent national news about dam collapse in the South that allowed waste material from a coal process to flow into a community, and said steps should be taken to insure such dams and storage areas aren't built and then abandoned in central Pennsylvania.
"This has to be cradle to the grave," Sweeney said. "It should be part of the permit process in ... reasonably pristine areas and watersheds"
The lack of information might be endemic to the system of gas development, according to Coleman and others, because the state caters to the company's desire for secrecy as they seek new resources and invest money to develop drilling operations. The official applications contain little information, and according to Coleman, a company needn't divulge more information for up to five years after the application is finalized.
Holladay said Chapman Township officials met with representatives from Danic Energy, a pollutant discharge elimination company, and were told the treatment plant the company plans to build there would still be up and running after 10 years, after all the drilling is done, and might be used for sewage treatment. The claim was greeted with skepticism from commission members who say the two treatment processes are so different as to be incompatible with one another in terms of the physical plant. Sweeney said the saltiness of the wastewater would ultimately shut a normal sewage treatment plant down, he said.
At last month's planning commission meeting, Holladay noted there were two proposals to construct gas well waste water treatment plants in the county, one in Wayne Township and one in Chapman Township.
The multiplicity of plans - for drilling, water withdrawal, purchase of water from authorities and waste treatment - are all attached to an overnight explosion of speculation attached to the deep gas-bearing rock layer called the Marcellus Shale, which has been in the news for more than a year for its potential to spur an economic boon.
According to the DEP, natural gas wells permitted in Clinton County increased from 14 in 2006 to 40 in 2007, with 35 permitted through the fall of last year. Statewide, 6,000 well permits have been issued, most in the western and central parts of the state, with another 2,000 expected by the end of the year.
Anadarko has approximately 300,000 leased acres in the Susquehanna River Basin area, mostly in Central Pennsylvania.
Some experts - the planning commission members among them - point to potential headaches and hazards to the region's natural resources.
A big hurdle is the treatment of salty and possibly radioactive wastewater from drilling operations. There are few plants certified to treat it, but the potential demand for those services is sparking some related plans and proposal for local treatment facilities, Holladay said.
The Marcellus layer has a rich potential for natural gas production, but the drilling process requires a huge amount of water. The water is injected into the rock during the drilling and picks up chemicals in the ground as a part of that process.
Board members discussed the difficulties attached to the treatment process, given the high amount of solids, radioactivity, salts, strontium and barium likely to be contained in the water, and problems with sludge disposal, given the large amounts of processed water proposed.
Traffic could also become a difficulty, board members suggested.
Tom Campbell, a former PennDOT employee, said he's seen the impact of heavy and repeated industrial truck traffic on roads ill prepared for the burden, and didn't want to see Route 120 fall victim to the hundreds of weighty loads that might hit the macadam in the aftermath of the drilling process.
Board members said they couldn't reasonably make any sort of decision or complete review of the proposals until more information comes to light, but they also decided to forward their concerns and questions to the appropriate authorities, including PennDOT, the Susquehanna River Basin Commission, the Chesapeake Bay Authority, the Pennsylvania Wilds tourism initiative, DEP and the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission, among others.