WCO weighs pros, cons of Shale industry's effect on environment

With a November 2011 bentonite spill in Johnsonburg's Silver Creek highlighting the potential environmental hazards posed by Marcellus Shale activity, Wildlife Conservation Officer Tom McMann of the Pa. Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC) spoke at January's meeting of the Elk County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs about the environmental effects of Marcellus Shale activity on Elk County's wilds and wildlife. In an interview Tuesday, McMann discussed further the pros and cons the industry poses to animal habitats and aquatic resources, as well as what he has seen of both in Elk County so far. While McMann said the Nov. 15 incident was considered by the Knox branch of the state Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to be the second-worst seen in the department's Northwest region, he clarified that there was no fish kill reported as a result of this incident. McMann added that when fish kill occurs as a result of Shale-related processes, it is either the result of a hazardous chemical entering the waterway or caused by sediment, which he claimed is the number-one pollutant in Pennsylvania."When you have runoff from roads or the drilling process, it gets into the stream, it damages the fish's gills and coats the bottom of the stream where all the insect life is and what the fish feed on...if the sediment is thick enough or heavy enough, it suffocates the aquatic life," McMann said. McMann claimed a definite link between the Marcellus Shale activity and increased amount of sediment in area waterways. "They're gaining access to these areas that are normally wooded. Now they're creating roads and large areas for drilling pads and so forth-- they expose the earth. And then there are regulations, they have to put erosion and sediment protection in to prevent that and sometimes that's ignored," McMann said. McMann said that while drilling activity can compromise water systems, the land clearing associated with the construction of drilling and well sites actually has a minimal impact on wildlife and can actually be beneficial in creating what he referred to as the "edge effect." The edge effect refers to the result of land being cleared and the tree canopy opened, creating a sudden contrast in the environment and ecology and leading to greater diversity of species and biological density on the ground below. "You have one huge wood lot and then you start creating openings that benefits a lot of wildlife. You might have a limited amount of turkeys feeding in there, but when you create an opening and now you have a seeded roadway and now you have grasshoppers, now all of a sudden the turkey population increases. It's called the edge effect," McMann said. McMann said that because of the edge effect, the construction and clearing associated with Marcellus Shale activity doesn't necessarily threaten wildlife and can be beneficial when done correctly and with regard for the surrounding ecosystem.Kris Dippold, president of the Elk County Federation of Sportsmen's Clubs, echoed this, adding that the surface impact of the Marcellus Shale activity is not necessarily of detriment to the areas wildlife as long as long as the water quality is not compromised as a result. "Other than being an eyesore, the opening of some of this edge forest is actually good for some of this wildlife, you get some sun in, and grasses, and edge cover so it would be good for deer and grouse and even turkey, you get some different vegetation with openings, but it doesn't look good. As long as the water quality stays good," Dippold said. "As bad as it all is out there, we do need the energy. There's highways running through these woods and it's kind of sad, but I figure in 20 years when the gas is all gone it'll all grow back."Asked his opinion of the natural gas industry's presence in the area, Dippold said that would depend upon the long-term effects it may pose. "Personally, it depends how a lot of this plays out with water. Ten years down the road, if all our water's ruined it probably wasn't worth it. But if they can keep the water problems to a minimum, this country's in bad shape as far as energy and if we can get that kind of energy and have minimal damages it's something that you have to do as long as it's done right," Dippold said.Pick up a copy of the Friday, Jan. 27, 2012 edition of The Ridgway Record for more.