Rivers are highways that move on, and bear us whither we wish to go.~ BLAISE PASCALI was born within sight of the Delaware River and although I travel the world I probably will die within sight of the Delaware River.
Despite two centuries of efforts to dam the Delaware, it remains the largest free-flowing river east of the Mississippi. The Delaware's 410 mile length bisects four states and while its days as a major commercial thoroughfare above Philadelphia are long in the past, it is the breeding ground and habitat for an extraordinary number of fish, birds, mammals and amphibians, as well as the major source of drinking water for 15 million people. It also is a touchstone for many of the events and players in my book.
But now the upper Delaware faces a new threat that has prompted American Rivers, a national environmental advocacy group, to designate it as the nation's most endangered.
This is because the Pennsylvania State Legislature has green-lighted proposals to drill for natural gas on thousands of acres of land in the Delaware watershed by energy companies that expect to find gas in the Marcellus shale rock formations.
The organization says that an extreme energy drilling practice known as hydraulic fracturing or "fracking'' is a threat to water supplies, and you don't have to be an environmental scientists to know that is true.
The gas industry, of course, argues that fracking is safe, but it can be trusted as much as . . . well, BP, and one company that is currently fracking in northcentral Pennsylvania has been ordered to cease operations after an out-of-control well spewed out explosive gas and polluted water.
Fracking has an extremely nasty by-product: wastewater so salty and so polluted with metals like barium and strontium, that every state requires drillers to get rid of the stuff by injecting it down shafts thousands of feet deep.
The liquid that gushes from Keystone State gas wells is only partially treated for substances that could be environmentally harmful, then dumped into rivers and streams from which communities get their drinking water.
State regulators have tightened the rules for any new water treatment plants, but are allowing any existing operations to continue discharging water into rivers.
Enter the New Year and a new governor, Tom Corbett, a conservative Republican who to no one's surprise is the gas drilling industry's best friend. Corbet, in fact, stacked his transition team with pro-fracking business advocates while mostly shunning environmentalists.
Shame on Pennsylvania's government. And pity the Delaware.Painting of the Delaware by William Hobbs. More here.