State officials gather input as fracking regs get refined

Opponents of fracking, including members of the Don’t Frack Maryland coalition, protest outside a public hearing Wednesday at Allegany College of Maryland on potential fracking regulations for the state of Maryland.

CUMBERLAND — Officials with the Maryland Department of the Environment listened to concerned citizens Wednesday evening as the state continues to refine regulations in preparation for the legalization of hydraulic fracturing in the state.

Located in the Marcellus shale field, Garrett and western Allegany County could be the future site of well pads used for the fracking. The current moratorium on fracking will expire on Oct. 1, 2017, clearing the way for the practice to begin. The controversial drilling method utilizes large volumes of water and sand to break open shale fields and collect the oil and gas reserves.

Held at Allegany College of Maryland, approximately 60 people attended the scheduled public meeting hosted by the MDE. Roughly half of the audience openly expressed their opposition to fracking. Several wore "Don't Frack Maryland" T-shirts and "Ban Fracking Maryland" stickers. Those opposed to legalizing fracking held a rally outside the continuing education building prior to the event.

The meeting is one of three being held by the MDE to allow citizens to comment on a new set of proposed regulations just released by the agency.

Numerous elected officials attended the meeting, including Allegany County Commissioner Bill Valentine, along with Mike McKay, Jason Buckel and Sen. George Edwards of the District 1 legislative delegation.

"They (the state) have to have rules and regulations in place by October 1 of this year," said Edwards, who supports fracking. "We can't issue any permits until Oct. 1, 2017. That is the process at this point. The governor (Larry Hogan) has come out in support of fracking if it can be done (in an) environmentally sound (manner).

"This process, contrary to what some people here said, is very open. They have met with these groups. They are being very transparent," added Edwards.

MDE officials Horacio Tablada, deputy secretary, and Jeff Treadwell, Virginia Kearney, Hilary Miller and Kaley Laleker gave a presentation on the new proposed regulations prior to taking public comment. During public input,15 people spoke in opposition to fracking with one speaking in favor.

"We deserve the gold standard and that is what we're looking for," said James Stanton, who spoke during public input.

The new proposals, available on the MDE website, establish benchmarks for air monitoring, water quality, setbacks for well pads and rules for encasing the drill lines. The MDE's proposed regulations call for four layers of casing and cementing around the underground drilling lines.

The proposed regulations also prohibit fracking at the Broadford Lake, Piney Dam and Savage Reservoir watersheds.

Pennsylvania and West Virginia have permitted fracking for several years. At the meeting, opponents of fracking objected to the MDE officials referencing Pennsylvania and West Virginia as sources for setting rules for Maryland.

"If you are going to look at Pennsylvania and West Virginia as examples of what to do, the evidence is clear," said Dale Sams. "It simply shows that it isn't working for the counties where they are fracking. It is another boom and bust industry. Just look at unemployment rates where fracking has occurred."

In addition to calling for a ban, many of those who spoke against fracking complained that the MDE released the proposed regulations just six hours prior to the meeting. They complained that they could not adequately take in the 35-page document to enable them to offer detailed input.

"It is irritating they only got this out six hours before," said Edwards. "But they have two other meetings and they are holding the commentary period open for 30 days. So people will have plenty of opportunity to put their two cents in."

Tablada confirmed comments will be accepted for 30 days and two additional meetings are being held with one scheduled for Monday at the MDE in Baltimore and a second meeting Wednesday at Garrett College.

"We are not short-changing anyone," said Tablada. "We have opportunity for everyone. Our objective has always been to provide regulation to protect the public health and the environment. That is paramount to us."

Edwards said the new proposed regulations are more stringent than a first set developed by the MDE in 2014.

"The other thing they talk about is Pennsylvania and West Virginia. When Pennsylvania started drilling, they didn't have rules and regulations adopted," said Edwards. "We are going through this whole process before we issue a permit. You're going to have the strictest rules in the country before they even issue a permit.

"They've been fracking for 50 to 60 years in the west. When it started in Appalachia seven or eight years ago, it was kind of like a gold rush. It isn't going to happen in Maryland. We are not that big a play in the oil field. You won't have 1,000 people coming here all at the same time and they're going to issue thousands of permits one day. It's not going to happen. They will probably minimize the number of permits they grant at a particular time."

Follow staff writer Greg Larry on Twitter @GregLarryCTN.

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Greg Larry is a reporter at the Cumberland Times-News. To reach him, call 304-639-4951, email glarry@times-news.com and follow him on Twitter @greglarryctn.