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Health, Science & Tech

Citizens, Organizations Speak on Marcellus Shale Air Pollution

Dr. Steven Cleghorn is an organic farmer from Jefferson County, Pennsylvania. He said his wife has stage four lung cancer.

"Throughout the age of the fossil fuels, the government has allowed too many pollutants to poison the atmospheric, aquatic, and biological resources that sustain our lives," said Cleghorn. "We can't know whether pollutants previously allowed by your agency or our government [are] what has struck her down. We're not going to be able to trace it back to that, but on such calculations as you have in these proposals, my wife may be one of those whom an earlier panel such as yours deemed 'acceptable.'"

Cleghorn said the EPA's latest air quality proposals for the gas industry are well-intentioned, but he can't support anything less than a ban on Marcellus Shale drilling.

He was one of many to denounce the process of hydraulic fracturing at Tuesday's EPA hearing on a proposal to reduce air pollution from natural gas and oil wells.

In particular, the proposed standards target the release of harmful compounds and greenhouse gases from newly-drilled wells. During the initial three- to ten-day "flowback" period, impure natural gas spews from the well, and it's usually kept in a nearby holding pond.

"We have seen, with our own eyes, the holding pond being burned off with intense heat, not to mention what it does to the air for my four children to breathe, as we are downwind from it directly. I do not keep the windows of my house open on that side," said Pittsburgh-area resident Lois Bjornson, who's in favor of the regulations.

The rules would require drillers to capture the flowback, and the EPA said the energy companies would be free to develop that gas for a profit.

The EPA estimates that the standards would cut down on smog-creating compounds and greenhouse gases created by the industry by a quarter, and air toxics, such as the carcinogen benzene, would be reduced by 30%.

But Jim Cooper of the Marcellus Shale Coalition said the agency is underestimating the cost of compliance with the new rules. "The [Regulatory Impact Analysis (RIA)] has factored in capital costs for specific pieces of control equipment, but it has failed to include ancillary costs, such as supporting infrastructure, piping, pad installation, et cetera," said Cooper. Cooper said the EPA also isn't giving the gas industry enough time to "react properly" or comply with the new rules if they're enacted.

Retired utility worker Jerry Kumnick said the proposed new standards would hurt Pennsylvania's economy. "Because of the way these rules are written, it maximizes the economic costs, with terrible effects on growth, hiring, and investment, and consumer prices, especially in a bad economy," said Kumnick. "Even in the present administration, the President thinks these rules should be delayed."

However, those in favor of the regulations represented the majority at the public hearing. Many supporters of the proposal suggested that it should go further, by not only regulating new wells, but existing wells, too.

Hearings are also scheduled in Denver, Colorado, and Arlington, Texas, which are also near large shale gas formations. The EPA has until February 28 of next year to take action on the proposed standards.