HARRISBURG, Pa. – Accusing the government of being unable to protect the environment or public health, more than 200 people rallied on Tuesday in the Pennsylvania Capitol for tougher laws — if not an outright ban — on natural gas drilling as pressure builds on state lawmakers to approve a levy on the booming industry.
The rally comes on the heels of an announcement by two more Republican lawmakers in the GOP-controlled Legislature that they're sponsoring bills to impose a tax or fee on Marcellus Shale gas extraction.
More than 10 lawmakers have now introduced or said they plan to introduce a measure imposing a tax or fee as drilling crews fan out across large swaths of northern and western Pennsylvania.
It appears likely that lawmakers will force floor votes on a tax or fee proposal by trying to attach amendments to unrelated bills, as lawmakers rush to finish the state budget this month and depart Harrisburg for the rest of the summer.
Senate President Pro Tempore Joe Scarnati told Gov. Tom Corbett in a closed-door meeting Monday that the governor and the other top Republican lawmakers in the room had better figure out which proposal they're in favor of because of the likelihood that floor debates and votes are unavoidable.
"I think we're going to face votes here in the Senate and the House amending various bills (and) that's going to require various legislators to determine what they're for and what they're against, and should something ultimately be passed through both chambers, I think it requires input from the governor's office," said Scarnati, R-Jefferson.
The debate over a tax or a fee has dragged on since then-Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat, first proposed it in early 2009, but ran into Republican resistance. Pennsylvania remains the largest gas-drilling state without such atax and Corbett, a Republican, opposes the imposition of one.
Corbett has said he would consider a fee that helps pay for the impact the industry creates on drilling communities, while clear majorities in the House and Senate appear to be in favor of some type of levy.
However, timing is an issue.
A growing number of lawmakers want approval of a tax or fee this month along with the budget, while Corbett has said that he first wants to hear what the panel he appointed, the Marcellus Shale Advisory Commission, reports back to him. He has asked for its report by July 22 — after the June 30 deadline for legislators to approve the state budget.
Many at the rally seemed uninterested in a tax and favored an outright ban on drilling. One of the speakers, Crystal Stroud, said a well drilled 1,200 feet from the home where she lives in northern Pennsylvania with her husband and 4-year-old son poisoned her well water and made her sick.
The company that drilled the well, Dallas-based Chief Oil & Gas LLC, on Tuesday denied responsibility for Stroud's health problems, saying that its nearby Andrus well has not yet been hydraulically fractured, and that none of the chemicals or metals that Stroud says made her sick were used in the drilling process.
Chief spokeswoman Kristi Gittins said in an email that the company investigated Stroud's claim and "found no evidence to date that we were the cause of the alleged contamination of her water well."
In March, Stroud said she became mysteriously sick — her speech slurred, her balance faltered, her hands trembled, her hair fell out, and her heart rate and blood pressure rose. Then a laboratory told her on April 11 that her water well was contaminated with barium, chloride, strontium, manganese, lead, methane, radiological material and radon, she said.
Barium levels in her and her son's blood were sky high, she said, and she soon found that many others in heavily drilled Bradford County were contracting mysterious illnesses and discovering polluted well water.
"Every day, I struggle with the fact we cannot trust our government to protect its people," she said, winning shouts of approval from the crowd.
Corbett's spokesman Kevin Harley said the state departments of Environmental Protection and Health both have active investigations into Stroud's claims, and the DEP has been in contact with her a number of times.
"The governor wants to develop this industry in an economically and environmentally responsible fashion and that's what he's doing," Harley said.
The Marcellus Shale formation, which is considered the nation's largest-known natural gas reservoir, lies primarily beneath Pennsylvania, New York, West Virginia and Ohio. Pennsylvania is the center of activity, with more than 3,000 wells drilled in the past three years and thousands more planned in the coming years as thick shale emerges as an affordable, plentiful and profitable source of natural gas.
But doors to Corbett's offices were shut, and more than 15 police officers and members of Capitol security watched as dozens of sign-toting and chanting demonstrators planted themselves in the hallway outside for more than an hour.
"We have shown the ugliness, the cowardice of this administration," Fox told the demonstrators, and then he referred to the campaign contributions that Corbett received in his 2009-10 campaign for governor from people connected to the natural gas industry. "I'm sure if we had $900,000 we could probably get through."
The governor was in his offices in scheduled meetings, Harley said.
"Usually when you go and scream and pound on the door, it's not the most effective means to get a meeting with the governor," Harley said.