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Chesapeake Bay Report Raises Concerns Over Marcellus Shale Fracking

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Could the Marcellus shale gas drilling boom pose a threat to a Chesapeake Bay still trying to recover from pollution? A new report from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) suggests that hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, could endanger that recovery.

Fracking involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. Drilling advocates claim the process is safe, but a number of scientists and public health experts have called the claim into question. Thanks to a move by Congress in 2005, fracking is exempt from federal regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act – deemed by fracking opponents the “Halliburton Loophole.” As a result, frackers don’t have to disclose the chemicals that make up their fracking fluids.

The Chesapeake Bay watershed stretches across more than 64,000 square miles, encompassing parts of six states — Delaware, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia – and the District of Columbia. The watershed is home to thousands of streams and rivers that eventually feed into the Chesapeake Bay. Much of it also lies atop the natural-gas rich Marcellus shale.

According to CBF’s 2010 “State of the Bay Report,” today, there are approximately 5,000 drilled or permitted natural gas wells in Pennsylvania alone, and by some estimate there could be as many as 60,000 wells drilled by 2030 if trends continue. Preliminary studies by the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences suggest that water quality may be degraded simply by the sheer number of well pads within a given region, the report says.

“Also of concern are drinking water contamination; habitat and forest fragmentation; water withdrawal; management and treatment of waste water; costly stress on roads, bridges, and other infrastructure; siting of drill pads on pristine public lands; and the Pennsylvania General Assembly’s failure to pass a severance tax, which would pay for the public costs of gas extraction,” the report said.

The CBF report expresses concerns about drillers’ compliance with current regulations. It notes, for example, that The Pennsylvania Land Trust Association reported last summer that since 2008 there have been 1,641 permit violations, of which 1,056 were deemed “likely to harm the environment.”

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