No indemnity for frackers

Betty Tatham , vice president for the PA League of Women Voters

By Jack Firneno
Wire Staff Writer

At a public meeting on fracking hosted by the League of Women Voters in Warrington last week, the conversation turned to Pennsylvania State Senate Bill 411.

Currently up for vote, the bill would “limit the treatment liability” of companies that use acid mine drainage (ADM) water in fracking and other industrial processes, according to a memorandum from bill sponsor Richard Kasunic.

The purpose of the bill is to allow for frackers and other companies to use ADM water instead of tapping into fresh water supplies, according to Betty Tatham, a vice president for the Pennsylvania League of Women Voters.

But, the bill also “indemnifies” those entities from any liability surrounding the use or disposal of that water — and that’s a huge problem.

“Anybody who accidently or carelessly handles such a contaminated substance should be held liable,” she said.

ADM water is runoff from used coal mines, where unearthed metals like pyrite mix with the elements to contaminate the water. It’s a prevalent phenomenon in Pennsylvania, where some 500 abandoned mines have caused more than 2,200 streams to be affected by ADM, according to reports from the Environmental Protection Agency.

The idea behind the bill is to reuse this water for industrial use rather than have frackers use fresh water supplies for their business, explained Tatham. But, she cautions the pollutant can have harmful effects on drinking water and the environment — and relaxing regulations surrounding it will make the problem worse.

“Right now, [companies] who use it are careful because there’s liability,” she said, and she doesn’t believe they’ll be as prudent if that safeguard is removed.

She points to Hatfield Township, where Cabot Oil and Gas was accused of illegally dumping waste water from fracking in the Neshaminy Creek in 2011, and the recent water contamination in West Virginia, where chemical spills affected the drinking water for more than 300,000 residents.

Another problem is that the corrosive properties of ADM have the potential to damage fracking equipment, which can cause more pipe blowouts, which is “a source of problems for older wells,” said Tatham.

Last February, the bill was approved by the Senate Committee on Environmental Resources and Energy.

“This innovative approach to the treatment and use of acid mine water is both cost effective and environmentally responsible,” said Kasunic in a release following that vote, viewing it as a “win-win” that would find a use for the polluted water. “It encourages the use of mine water in drilling rather than the continued heavy use of municipal and fresh water sources.”

On Jan. 13 this year, the bill was voted through the Senate Appropriations Committee, and is awaiting schedule for a vote by the full Senate. Locally, Sen. Stewart Greenleaf (R-12) voted against it as a member of the committee. “A lot of environmental groups were opposed to the bill,” said Aaron Zappia, spokesman for Greenleaf.

As the bill makes its way to the Senate floor, however, Tatham urged local League members to call their legislators, and encourage others to do so as well.

She urged caution on fracking: “We need to educate ourselves, look at what’s happening today and what can happen tomorrow.”