Thousands of miles of streams in Pennsylvania have been polluted by drainage from abandoned mines — the toxic legacy of coal mining.
Volunteers working to clean up those streams are protected by the state’s Environmental Good Samaritan Law. A bill making its way back into the Legislature would make natural gas drillers good Samaritans, too.
It takes about 4 million gallons of water to frack just one natural gas well. Instead of using fresh water sources, Pennsylvania wants gas drillers to draw from streams already polluted by abandoned mine drainage.
Some energy companies are already doing this. But others are worried they’ll be held responsible for cleaning up these polluted streams forever.
Peter Fontaine, an attorney who supports the new bill, said it was recently amended to fix that perpetuity problem.
“This bill has potential to harness capitalism to solve a problem and that was not the case under the prior legislation,” he said.
The original Environmental Good Samaritan Law was meant to protect nonprofits cleaning up these streams from liability.
But simply withdrawing the water and moving it off site doesn’t count as cleaning a stream, said Jordan Yeager, an attorney working with environmental groups who oppose the bill.
“It would grant immunity to a company that comes in, pumps the water out and sells it for use, for example, in fracking activities,” Yeager said. “It would grant immunity to that company even though that company isn’t doing anything to clean up the water.”
That could lead to other environmental problems down the road, he said, and the drillers would be off the hook.
Fontaine disagrees. The bill would not protect those who misuse the polluted water, he said.