Saturday, January 10, 2015

Why We Should All Have a New York State of Mind on Fracking, Drilling & Shale Gas

Where were you when New York banned fracking? December 17, 2014, has now joined the list of “where were you when” moments for everyone involved in the fight to end fracking in the U.S.

Based on an extensive review of the science regarding the health, environmental, and community impacts of high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking)—a new process being used to shatter underground rock formations to extract shale gas—New York has banned the practice. The state’s prohibition on fracking means that New Yorkers will be spared the harmful effects of industrial shale gas extraction.

Why did New York decide to make this landmark decision? While reviewing shale gas and fracking processes, the state identified a number of harms to human and environmental health, as well as economic issues inflicted by the shale gas extraction industry.

According to New York’s thorough five-year review, destructive impacts of shale gas extraction could include:

   Reduced air quality
   Polluted drinking water
   Soil and water contamination
   Surface water contamination
   Induced earthquakes
   “Boomtown economic effects,” including “increased vehicle traffic, road damage, noise, odor complaints”
   Climate change.

New York’s detailed analysis stands in stark contrast to Pennsylvania’s approach. The commonwealth has moved full-steam ahead despite mounting evidence of the harms caused by this extreme industrial practice.

In Maryland, fracking isn’t currently happening, but that may change soon. Governor Martin O’Malley recently said that, while there is “no doubt” that shale gas extraction is a threat to public health, the environment, and important natural resources, the state will put in place regulations that will manage these harms so they are kept to an “acceptable level.” But if your tap water has been so polluted you can’t safely drink or bathe in it; if your air has been poisoned; if your lungs have been harmed or your body contaminated; if you now live in the shadow of the 24/7 lights, noise, and stink of a nearby industrial well site and the 1,400 to 4,000 truck trips it requires, there is no acceptable level.

As revealed in Unsafe & Unsustainable, a recent analysis of voluntary “performance standards” purported to make shale gas extraction safe and sustainable, this is an industry that cannot be made safe. Time and again, standards put forth suggesting that shale gas extraction can be done safely are found wanting, the task, unachievable.

The sad reality is that in Pennsylvania and Maryland, these decisions are being driven by politics, not science. When politics are taken out of the analysis, the full depth and breadth of harm from shale gas extraction is honestly and earnestly revealed and recognized. When the Pennsylvania Supreme Court was asked to render a ruling about the impacts of shale gas extraction, in a legal forum not driven by politics, but by law and facts, Chief Justice Ron Castille wrote:

"By any responsible account, the exploitation of the Marcellus Shale Formation will produce a detrimental effect on the environment, on the people, their children, and future generations, and potentially on the public purse, perhaps rivaling the environmental effects of coal extraction."

We all need pure water, clean air, and the healthy environment necessary to support and sustain healthy lives, yet political leaders fail to give environmental rights the same protections they give other fundamental rights like freedom of speech.

Shale gas extraction is an extreme example of our right to healthy lives’ being
bargained away for political capital. But it doesn’t have to be that way. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has set the standard we can and should demand of all politicians: Put the rights and lives of the people before the profits of industry.

In fact, in the pursuit of energy, you can support people and profits simultaneously—just make the energy industries you advance are the ones that provide truly clean and sustainable energy options (go to to learn how your state can be fueled by sustainable energy in a matter of decades).

Now is the time to recognize that we all have inherent and indefeasible rights to pure water, clean air, and a healthy environment. These are rights we must demand for ourselves and protect for the generations yet to come (learn more about what you can do to demand your environmental rights through our For The Generations program).

As the Post Carbon Institute’s Drilling Deeper report documents, the life of the shale gas industry will be but a few decades. We are all better served by investing now in clean energy options that will fuel our future and protect our air, water, sustainable jobs, economy, and lives.

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Thursday, December 4, 2014

Protecting Our Rights to Pure Water, Clean Air and a Healthy Environment

Our rights to free speech and religious freedom are among the many fundamental rights guaranteed by our federal and state constitutions, which we fiercely fight to protect in the United States.

But while our Declaration of Independence talks about the right to life and the pursuit of happiness, what we do not find in our U.S. Constitution are the rights to three basic needs for life and happiness: our rights to pure water, clean air, and healthy environments.

Only a few state constitutions include environmental rights among the list of rights to which we are each individually entitled. Pennsylvania is currently the state with the most protective environmental rights amendment in its state constitution, and its state Bill of Rights also enumerate those protections. And this past year, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court breathed substantive life into the provision.

Until recently, despite the Environmental Rights Amendment in Pennsylvania’s constitution, the courts did not give due protection to the fundamental rights it pronounces. But as the result of a legal action brought by the Delaware Riverkeeper Network and seven towns, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has declared the environmental rights of Pennsylvanians inviolable and deserving of the highest levels of protection in the State.

In the case, titled Robinson Township, Delaware Riverkeeper Network, et al. v. the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court went a fundamental step further than just protecting environmental rights in the state. The courts made clear that our environmental rights are not granted to us, but are in fact inherent and indefeasible rights (meaning they are rights given to us by nature and that cannot be taken from us by government or law). Of further significance, the plurality of the court said that these environmental rights belong not just to present generations living on the earth today, but they are rights that must be protected for the future generations yet to come.

Why is this important? Because every day local, state, and federal governments are granting permission to industries to pollute, deforest, denigrate, and despoil our environments, which is having serious effects on our planet and our bodies. For example, an estimated 1.3 million cancer deaths per year result from exposure to pollution in the environment, while air pollution has been characterized as “the world’s largest single environmental health risk,” causing the death of approximately 7 million people in a given year.

Often, the permission to pollute is defended by the assertion that it will create jobs, or that the near-term gain of a new energy source overshadows the need to consider environmental degradation and its harmful impacts. These kinds of excuses do not justify the harms that polluting industries create. After all, what good is a job if you don’t have the health needed to take advantage of it, or if you have to sacrifice your parent, child, friend, or neighbor in order to have it?

And the truth is that most goals can be achieved in a way that protects the environment and communities. For example:

-- Instead of drilling and fracking, which irreparably pollutes our water, air, and lands, by the year 2050 we could provide that very same energy using sustainable methods, such as wind, water, solar, and geothermal, while simultaneously avoiding the devastating pollution and climate-changing impacts of shale gas.

-- Instead of developing land by cutting down all of the trees, which creates floods, developers could use building practices that protect trees and the absorbency of the soils and capture rainfall in a way that allows the water to soak into the ground and doesn’t generate devastating floods and pollution.

Of the 35 states with constitutional environmental provisions, only Rhode Island, Montana, and Pennsylvania provide high-level protection, and of those only Pennsylvania has court rulings that ensure these rights are genuinely protected. There are 15 states with no provisions whatsoever.

It’s time for communities across the nation to demand that their environmental rights be protected by their states. It’s time for us all to embrace the truth stated by Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court Chief Justice, that we as people have an inherent and indefeasible right to pure water, clean air, and healthy environments.

To learn more, visit

This blog, written by Maya van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper, was originally posted on:

Friday, May 9, 2014

Green Lawns Don’t Make For “Green” Yards

Traditional front lawn -- see last pictures for this lawn
restored with native plants

The natural world around us is awakening from a tough winter.  Our yards are greening up as the weather warms, but are our yards as “green” as they could be?

All across the country as communities have expanded and new developments have been built, the amount of land covered with a green grass carpet has grown.  We have lost the native vegetation, trees and shrubs in particular, that should characterize our landscapes.  Just as we have lost our native trees and shrubs, we have seen floodwaters rising, streambanks eroding, drinking wells running dry and declining water quality.  There is a direct connection between the loss of native vegetation across our communities and what is happening to our local streams and those that live downstream.

When vegetated with native trees and shrubs, when covered in a blanket of decaying leaves, needles and wood, the land acts as a sponge.  Rainwater percolates into the soil, filtering down to the water table below to re-supply the aquifers that provide our drinking water.  Rainwater also provides base flow to our streams, creeks and rivers.  The landscape, in this natural state, is alive with life — birds sing in the trees, squirrels dance across the ground, bugs revel in the earth.  Our lives are richer and our water flows free and clean.

Not all vegetation is created equal, however.  Lands vegetated only with grass cannot perform the functions of the natural landscape.  Lawns don’t act as sponges.  Lawn mowers, heavy use and foot traffic all cause soil compaction which limits infiltration.  Lawns established as part of a development have soils compacted intentionally for site engineering and construction purposes.  As a result, lawns more closely resemble impervious surfaces.  Like sidewalks and roadways, lawns shed rain during a storm event rather than allowing it to infiltrate.

Water rushing off lawn dumping to stream.
The bulk density of soil — the mass of a dry soil divided by its volume, and expressed as grams per cubic centimeter (gms/cc) — can provide an estimate of its compaction.  Bulk density increases as soil becomes more compact.  Not surprisingly, lawns can have high bulk densities, from 1.5 to 1.9 gms/cc, rivaling that of concrete which has a bulk density of 2.2 gms/cc.[i]

Lawns generate significantly more stormwater runoff than meadow, scrub vegetation or forests.  What’s more, runoff from our lawns is often carrying with it any excess or improperly applied fertilizers and pesticides.  This runoff is channeled, usually by roads, to a nearby storm drain, which is likely receiving runoff from other lawns, roadways and communities. Stormwater runoff travels through storm sewers to a local creek where it combines with the runoff from all other upstream communities.

Our stream channels are being scoured by fast-moving stormwater.  Streambanks are being eroded and, when they have been cleared of vegetation or are maintained as close cropped lawn, they are particularly susceptible.  The eroded sediments turn our streams a chocolate brown, depriving fish and plants of light. When the sediment settles out of the water column, it smothers the streambed where aquatic insects live and where fish lay their eggs.

More and more frequently, downstream communities are suffering the effects of the loss of open space and vegetation upstream.  These downstream communities are experiencing higher and more frequent flooding caused by increasing stormwater flows.  Communities are bearing the brunt of the loss vegetation.  And both upstream and downstream communities include among their vegetation clearing practices, the streambanks and floodplains that could otherwise serve as part of a protective solution.  Wide forested buffers and vegetated floodplains can serve as a place for holding and filtering floodwaters and runoff, their roots prevent erosion of public and private lands, and they provide the habitat that ensures healthy bugs and fish that actually help cleanup pollution that has already entered our streams.  The combination of cleared lands throughout the watershed, and denuded, or barely vegetated, streamside lands and floodplains packs a powerful combination punch of harm.

Stormwater detention basins, as they are presently constructed, do little to alleviate problems associated with runoff, and they can, in fact make problems worse.  These basins serve only to reduce peak flows of stormwater runoff, and ultimately prolong the harmful impacts of a storm event on our streams and on downstream communities.  Planting our stream corridors more with vegetation, especially trees and shrubs, could moderate the effects of increased stormwater runoff.

We can also have an impact with how we manage our own lands, public and private.  Many of us enjoy a grassy area in our yards, a place to play, sunbathe or read.  We can continue to enjoy our spot in the sun, but we can also reduce the total amount of lawn we maintain.  Start by re-vegetating little used grassy area.  Plant native plants.  Add a garden.  Consider adding a perimeter of native trees, shrubs.  Doing so not only beautifies our gardens, increases the value of our homes, provides shading to cool homes in the warm summer months reducing cooling costs, and provides a visual and noise buffer that can enhance our quality of life, but it provides flood and pollution prevention and protection to our downstream neighbors.

same front yard as above
For those of us who have streams in our yards, it is vitally important that we take on the added obligation of protecting and/or putting in place wide vegetated buffers filled with native trees, shrubs and plants that will prevent streamside erosion, help reduce flood flows and peaks, and can help filter out pollution found in the creek. 

Through simple landscaping practices we can improve local water quality, contribute to flood relief for downstream communities, provide habitat for birds and wildlife, bring privacy and peace to our own back yards while still allowing for the lawns many people so love to mow.

Authored by Maya K. van Rossum, the Delaware Riverkeeper.

[i] Schueler, T. 2000. The Compaction of Urban Soil: The Practice of Watershed Protection. Center for Watershed Protection, Ellicott City, MD. Pages 210-214.