Pennsylvania’s Grim Fracking Future: Senator Daylin Leach Explains His Concerns about Act 13
First and foremost, I would like to thank State Senator Daylin Leach of the 17th Senate District, which consists of central Montgomery and eastern Delaware Counties, for conducting this interview about Act 13, the ALEC and Industry written Impact Fee Bill, which was chronicled in the Alternet.Org article, “Fracking Democracy: Why Pennsylvania’s Act 13 May Be the Nation’s Worst Corporate Giveaway.” The topics of our discussion revolved around what is Act 13, what local zoning ordinances and previous laws are affected, the designated setbacks associated with the act, what state agencies are involved in regulating the bill, the health provisions and restrictions and the very real possibilities of natural gas drilling on Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education (PASSHE) universities.
Act 13’s Effect on Local Communities
We started our interview with a brief explanation of what the Impact Fee does for local communities. Counties and municipalities have the option of enacting the bill, but those counties who do not agree to the impact fee will not receive vital money that would normally go towards infrastructure and environmental repairs. If a township does not pass the impact fee, the state will lose money from the Going Green Initiative, which brings green projects and environmental rehabilitation to the state. Senator Leach goes on to explain that counties across the state, including Bradford Country, which has the most natural gas pads in the state, are showing resistance to this bill and are prepared to go to court against the natural gas industry.
Since every square centimeter of land in Pennsylvania is incorporated as a borough, township, municipality or city, every community must have a Municipal Planning Code, which grants those townships the authority to properly designate industrial, commercial, and residential zones. Until the Oil and Gas Act of 1984, communities in Pennsylvania were unable to properly zone or pass ordinances that would safely regulate the oil and gas industries, and with the Impact Fee Bill, the Pennsylvania GOP is going back into history and undermining the Oil and Gas Act. Daylin Leach explained that this bill contradicts the “Republican small government ideology” saying this bill “undermines the Oil and Gas Act does not do a bit of justice because those who support Act 13 believe all regulations should be held on a local level.”
Act 13 imposes the two sets of buffers, which are for the gas pads and their containment ponds and the compressor stations. The gas pads and containment ponds, which hold the frack fluid, are allowed to be 300 feet away from any structure, and the compressing stations are pushed back to 700 feet from any structure. Senator Leach explained that after his moratorium bill, which would have halted drilling operations for a year to study the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing, never made it to the floor the Democratic Caucus wanted to push the buffers back to 1,500 feet away from any structure because the process of hydraulic fracturing “injects high volumes of water and chemicals at high pressures into the ground to break up the rock, but these chemicals are extremely dangerous and will not stay underground. The Democratic Caucus wanted to create a buffer for the industry because people are getting sick and animals are dying. The buffers [in Act 13] were for appearance sake, and if it was let up to the industry they would be drilling in your [home’s] water well.” When asked about the compressors and the ozone pollution that is generated and the adverse health effects from this pollution, Senator Leach stated that the “industry claims that there is no data available to prove these claims, but the [Democratic Caucus] would like to err on the side of caution.” Senator Leach then went on to call out the natural gas industry on their lie by comparing them to the CEOs of the tobacco industry “who all said before Congress that smoking cigarettes does not cause health effects or addiction.”
To prove a point about how this bill will affect everyone in the Commonwealth, I asked Senator Leach a hypothetical question about pipeline construction in southeastern Pennsylvania, and the question was, “If Chesapeake Energy or Range Resources wanted to run a pipeline through Montgomery or Bucks Counties, would they be able to run the pipeline through these counties?” Senator Leach explained that this question “was not theoretical, and it is a reality for those who live in southeastern Pennsylvania because the gas industry is allowed to do whatever they want [inside Pennsylvania].” Daylin then went on to talk about the mindset of those living in this area of the state by saying, “Southeast Pennsylvania has no drilling operations, so it is an out of sight out of mind mentality,” but that reality is about to come to a screeching halt with the possibility of gas drilling in Nockamixon Township, Bucks County.
Our interview then shifted towards the agencies responsible for regulatory oversight on the state and the local levels. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) and the Pennsylvania Utilities Commissions (PUC), a non-elected entity, respectively, are responsible for issuing the permits and regulating the natural gas companies and are responsible for regulating utilities, rate increases and credits for solar or green energy initiatives. The PA DEP will be responsible for inspecting a possible 30,000 drill sites in the state, and the DEP is responsible for issuing permits, which, once finalized, cannot be rejected by the community the permit is issued for. But the DEP has been facing budget cuts the last four years, which has reduced the amount of people inspecting the gas wells. The PUC, which has little to no experience with local planning, zoning or drafting of local ordinances, was appointed to oversee the planning and zoning processes, and if the PUC finds a law that slightly interferes with the extraction of natural gas, that township could possibly be forced to forfeit all the money they would be eligible to receive from the impact fee. The PUC can also determine what local zoning ordinance is and is not allowed inside a community. With this law, these two agencies have a complete stranglehold over local municipalities, and the enforcement these agencies are strong-arming municipalities to oblige to the optional bill.
The last set of horrid provisions we talked about were the song and dance acts local health officials must comply with. I asked the senator, “What happens if a doctor treats a cluster of bromide or benzene poisonings, two chemicals that are closely associated with fracking?” His response was grim because doctors are allowed to treat the possible cases and are allowed to receive the chemical formulas of the frack fluid, but “doctors are not allowed to make a public health inquiry to their peers or the public because the frack fluid is considered proprietary property.” Senator Leach then goes on to question the label “proprietary property” because “the natural gas industry is not dealing with a secret recipe like Coca Cola would be when creating a Diet Coke formula. The natural gas industry knows that there would be a public relations disaster if the general public found out what chemicals were in the frack fluid.”
Drilling on PASSHE Universities?
The last topic of conversation was the possibility of drilling on Pennsylvania state-funded universities. In an exchange at a budget town hall at Kutztown University with Lt. Governor Jim Cawley, Karen Feridun, Berks Gas Truth organizer, and I posed questions about hydraulic fracturing on PASSHE campuses as a way to recoup money lost from the governor’s previous and proposed budgets. Mr Cawley danced around the first question by openly supporting the idea, but the state would not mandate universities to allow drilling on campuses. He then danced around my question, calling it “theatrical to say that I endorse poisoning college students,” when the process of hydraulic fracturing is safe. You can watch the exchange below. I then asked Senator Leach, “With the restrictions in Act 13, what are the possibilities of [fracking] on college PASSHE campuses?” Senator Leach explained that it depends if the university is private or owned by the state. Private universities are allowed to deny natural gas companies from their campuses, but “the Corbett administration’s mindset is that state universities should sell the drilling rights, rather than investing in public education.” He then went on to explain that the possibilities of drilling on state owned universities are very real, and can be mandated by Harrisburg.
When I asked Senator Leach if he was surprised about the lack of public outcry and visible protesting, he said, “There hasn’t been enough of an outcry, and people will not get involved until it is in their faces. [We must] educate them and get them primed for when everything hits the fan.” For those who live in the Shale Region, shit has already hit the fan, and more families are going without fresh drinking water each day. Families living in Southeastern Pennsylvania should start worrying about pipelines being built to the Philadelphia harbor and worried about their fresh drinking water because the fate of our water will be decided by the actions of the natural gas industry.