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Shale drillers take note of endangered species

By Tony Sonita, Point Park News Service:

A common sight throughout the Marcellus shale region, an active drilling site sits on a small hillside surrounded by homes in Washington County. Photo: Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review
A common sight throughout the Marcellus shale region, an active drilling site sits on a small hillside surrounded by homes in Washington County. Photo: Justin Merriman | Tribune-Review

If one were to ask St. Vincent College biology professor Cynthia Walter about the impact Marcellus Shale drilling has on wildlife, he or she better be prepared to discuss the topic at length.

“Where to begin?” she said. “Well, the process of fracking disrupts ecosystems. The drilling can move animals, damage fish and bugs, and taint water.”

With the recent increase in Marcellus Shale drilling in Pennsylvania, some biologists, like Walter, are looking deeper into the damage that Marcellus Shale might cause to the 88 species that are on the state’s endangered and threatened species lists. The industry reaches the gas through hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, of shale a mile or more below the surface.

State environmental regulators counter, however, that the industry has learned how to extract gas without causing significant damage to endangered animals.

“When it comes to the day-to-day monitoring of these areas, we don’t see a lot of damage coming from the gas companies,” said Chris Urban, the Commission’s non-game and endangered species coordinator.

A 2013 case review published by Duke University showed methane concentrations in water wells in Northeastern Pennsylvania were six times higher than normal. Ethane concentrations were found to be, on average, 23 times higher than normal.

“If the water in the ecosystem is damaged, the animals can become sick,” Walter said.

This can be particularly damaging for animals such as the timber rattlesnake that use the same living dens every year, she said. Drilling pads can damage these homes.

“Gas drilling is just evasive to species in the area,” Walter said. “If the animal is endangered, that could be it for the animal.”

Despite the studies, Eric Levis, spokesperson for the state’s Fish and Boat Commission, said drilling companies must follow strict guidelines to keep their drilling pads from damaging and risking further damage to endangered and threatened species.

“The state makes gas companies drilling in new areas take steps to keep drilling from damaging the area,” he said. “All waste must be disposed of in an appropriate manner in order to minimize leaks.”

Urban said that “because of the earlier problems that came with drilling, the gas companies have really taken steps to keep endangered and threatened species from suffering further damage.”

Travis Windle, spokesperson for the Marcellus Shale Coalition, sent via email a link to an industry website that displays eight different practices that drilling companies must go through before they drill and while the site is active.

Walter said drilling companies should still be monitored extensively.

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