The Susquehanna River Basin Commission held its first public hearing for oral testimony of water withdrawal applications on Feb.16. The Commission, an interstate watershed agency that manages the resources of the central Pennsylvania basin, previously heard from applicants the day of voting by the four-Commissioner panel.
The decision to split up the testimony and voting came after a disruption at the previous meeting on Dec. 15. That interruption came from multiple people at the hearing, applicants and members of the public, speaking out of turn. The goal of the separation was to create a safe and secure environment for the public to speak, as well as get through the agenda of hearing from the applicants, said Susan Obleski, the SRBC director of communications.
Opponents to the withdrawal of water from the Susquehanna River for hydrofracking attended both the Dec.15 meeting and the public hearing on Feb. 16. Their agenda was similar at both gatherings, said Nathan Sooy, the central Pennsylvania campaign organizer for Clean Water Action.
“We were calling for an immediate moratorium on water withdrawals for fracking until (the SRBC) has studied the cumulative impacts of it,” said Sooy. “By allowing these companies to pump water from the Susquehanna, the SRBC is not serving the interests of people along the river, which is part of their mandate.”
Guy Alsentzer, director of operations for Stewards of the Lower Susquehanna Inc. in York and staff attorney for the Lower Susquehanna River Keeper, attended both meetings.
“I’m glad the Commission took the opportunity to remedy the procedural decline at the Dec.15 meeting,” said Alsentzer. “All of the applications were approved off the record (on Dec.15) which was disappointing. We lost an element of public access to information to the commissioners because of the disruptions.”
The SRBC is in favor of economic development from hydrofracking, said Obleski. The Commission also benefits from application fees to withdrawal water which made up about 65 percent of the Commission’s budget in fiscal year 2011, Obleski wrote in an email.
The Commission requires an application for withdrawal “from gallon one” in an attempt to be conservative and protective of the environment in dealing with the new water use, wrote Obleski.
Sooy does not believe the SRBC is doing enough.
“The public is not involved the way it should be,” said Sooy. “There needs to be more transparency and less closed door deals.”
Obleski said the Commission is required to have a public hearing format. The minutes and webcast of the Feb. 16 hearing will be provided for the Commissioners who will vote on the applications at the March 15 meeting, but will not be available to the public, she said.
Sooy made a comparison to the Delaware River Basin Commission that recently prohibited water use for hydrofracking. The DRBC has multiple advisory committees that bring together leaders from companies, organizations, universities and the government to provide information for the commissioners, said Sooy.
“Citizens can sit on them, too,” he said. “The SRBC has no access other than the public hearings.”
York County does not have any Marcellus Shale formations, but is still affected by the impacts of hydrofracking, particularly along the Susquehanna River, said Alsentzer.
“If water levels and quality are degraded by the fracking companies while the SRBC sits in the unique position to regulate and study the impacts, they can no longer hold themselves aloof,” said Alsentzer.
There are four commissioners on the SRBC. One from N.Y., Pa. and Md., and one from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The state commissioners are appointed by the state’s governor, and the federal commissioner is designated by the President.