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DRBC’s Draft Nat Gas Regs

Groups call for expansion of public input process

By SANDY LONG

DELAWARE RIVER BASIN, NY AND PA — Sixty organizations representing roughly 300,000 individuals have submitted a request to the Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) to expand its approach to receiving public input on its keenly anticipated Draft Natural Gas Development Regulations.

The proposed regulations apply to all natural gas development projects involving siting, construction or use of production, exploratory or other wells in the basin regardless of the target geologic formation, and to water withdrawals, well pad and related activities and wastewater disposal activities comprising part of, associated with or serving such projects.

The current plan is to accept public comment on the regulations during a 90-day period that ends at 5 p.m. on March 16. Two methods of submission are allowed and three public hearings have been scheduled to receive written comment and oral testimony (see sidebar “How to submit comments”).

The organizations submitting the request range from environmental and human health advocacy groups to church organizations, concerned citizens groups and a teamsters union. All are based in New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

“The regulation of gas extraction and development in the Delaware River Basin will impact the eight million residents of the Delaware River Watershed,” the letter reads. “It also will affect millions of people living outside of the basin who rely on the Delaware River for drinking water—the 2.8 million New Jersey residents who get their water from the river and the estimated eight million people in New York City.”

Citing exceptional public response to natural gas development issues in the Delaware River, the groups urge the DRBC to re-examine its approach. “In order for large numbers of people to provide meaningful comment, particularly given the technical and policy issues involved, the public participation process must offer adequate time and diverse opportunities for broad public participation,” the letter continues.

DRBC spokesperson Clarke Rupert said staff will be consulting with the five commissioners on the various requests presented in the letter to ascertain how they wish to respond.

Another request for expansion was made by Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy (CCSE) and the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, which also fault the agency for not scheduling hearings in Philadelphia and New York City.

“These cities have a combined population of ten million, and both have registered their strong opposition to the commission’s plan to promulgate regulations without first conducting a cumulative impact statement and without the benefit of any credible peer-reviewed studies of hydraulic fracturing and drinking water safety,” wrote CCSE’s Bruce Ferguson. “The promulgation of drilling regulations without appropriate scientific study has sparked concern and outrage.”

Clarke explained by email that the agency believes the process put in place actually increases the opportunities to efficiently provide comments. “It has been our experience that people do not send comments to one email address as requested but rather to multiple recipients at the DRBC, which makes the process of ensuring that all written comments are collected, catalogued and reviewed much more difficult to efficiently administer.”

Because DRBC anticipates a significant number of comments, it will utilize the National Park Service’s Planning, Environment, and Public Comment (PEPC) system for electronic submission of written comments. Clarke said the PEPC is used to record comments from across the nation on NPS projects, is more effective than an email address and provides an automated record of the sender and the comment.

In addition, the DRBC has engaged a consulting firm to assist in managing the written comments received via PEPC, paper submissions mailed or delivered to the commission secretary, or the paper and oral comments received at the public hearings. “The consultant will not prepare responses to the comments, but will only provide additional resources to assist commission staff in managing the large number of comments,” noted Clarke. Paper comments received by the commission secretary will also be scanned into the system, allowing for increased transparency and public access to the comments.

It is possible that changes could be made to the draft regulations published in December 2010 in response to the public input received during the comment period, according to Clarke. “The commission would then determine whether additional hearings are appropriate depending on the nature of the changes,” he added.

For information on the regulations visit www.state.nj.us/drbc/notice_naturalgas-draftregs.htm . Click the “At A Glance” link to see a two-page summary.

What the groups want

• Expand the public comment period to a minimum of six months to facilitate public participation and to offer sufficient notice for each hearing.

• Schedule public hearings in each basin state: Delaware, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania, and at least one public hearing in each of the two largest population centers that rely on the Delaware River for water supplies, New York City and Philadelphia. Due to Pennsylvania’s size, one hearing should be held in the Upper Delaware region, one in the central watershed area and one in the southeastern area.

• Make all written comments addressed to the DRBC accessible to the public for transparency.

• Prepare a revised draft of the regulations based on input from the initial public comments, and conduct a second period of public input before final regulations are adopted.

How to submit comments to DRBC

• The preferred method is electronic submission using a web-based form available at parkplanning.nps.gov/projectHome.cfm?projectId=33467.

• Paper submissions should be mailed to Commission Secretary, DRBC, P.O. Box 7360, 25 State Police Drive, West Trenton, NJ 08628 and should include the name, address, and affiliation (if any) of the commenter.

• Oral testimony will be accepted at three public hearings held from 1:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. and 6 p.m. to 9:30 p.m. as follows: Feb. 22 – Honesdale High School Auditorium, 459 Terrace Street, Honesdale, PA; Feb. 22 – Liberty High School Auditorium, 125 Buckley Street, Liberty, NY; Feb. 24 – Patriots Theater at the War Memorial, 1 Memorial Drive, Trenton, NJ. Registration for those who wish to testify will begin one hour prior to each hearing session (12:30 p.m. and 5 p.m.). Oral testimony is limited to two minutes per person, but can be supplemented with written comments submitted at the hearing or prior to the written comments deadline. Comments that are faxed, telephoned, or emailed to individual DRBC commissioners and staff will not be accepted for the rule-making record. Any action on the proposed regulations will be taken at a duly noticed public meeting of the commission at a future date.