Opponents win, for now: DRBC puts Artesian decision on hold
● By Steven Hoffman
More than 100 concerned parties on both sides of the biggest issue in recent southern Chester County memory gathered in downtown Wilmington on Sept. 15, well prepared to again state their opinion in anticipation on a final ruling, and even though both sides spent nearly three hours arguing for and against the activation of a well in Landenberg, they could have saved their voices.
The meeting, held at the Chase Center on the Wilmington Riverfront, essentially served as a follow-up to a three-hour meeting several DRBC and DEP officials held with over 200 concerned residents on Sept. 8, at the Avondale Fire Company. Throughout the Sept. 8 meeting, residents provided both scientific and emotional testimony to the officials, strongly encouraging the DRBC to either entirely reject Artesian's application to activate the well, or place severe monitoring checks and balances on Artesian, if the well is approved.
Making reference to the Sept. 8 meeting which she attended, Kelly Heffner, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection deputy secretary and the Pennsylvania liaison to the Delaware River Basin Authority's [DRBC] Board of Governors
The formal approval to postpone decision on the Artesian docket was decided at the board's business meeting on Sept. 16.
“I did promise that I would share the results of that informational meeting with the other commissioners, and we have already had the opportunity to do that,” Heffner said. “We take seriously the comments that have been received. They need some comprehensive valuation. I know we talked last Tuesday about that evaluation being presented in a written format. While we are going to do it officially today, I have no reason to believe hat my fellow commissioners will not support that mission tomorrow [Sept. 16].”
Heffner's comments were made during the DRBC board's meeting to review not only Artesian's application, but 32 other water activation applications currently in docket form, from New York, New Jersey, Delaware and elsewhere in Pennsylvania. In addition to moderator Steven Tambini, DRBC director, those in attendance were Pamela M. Bush, secretary and legal counsel; Kenneth J. Warren, legal counsel; William H. Graham, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers; Kara S. Coats, Delaware representative; Angus Eaton, New York representative; and Daniel Kennedy, New Jersey representative.
Artesian is seeking approval to withdraw as much as 288,000 gallons of water per day, at a rate of 200 gallons per minute, and over 100 million gallons projected over the course of one year from the aquifer.
For nearly the next 90 minutes, the board heard comments from those opposed to the activation of the Broad Run well. Some of points raised by those in attendance included questioning the scope and validity of last spring’s aquifer test, which was conducted during inclement weather and thus may have potentially skewed water level results; questioning the exact amount of water Artesian needs; and questioning why Artesian has not obtained zoning approval or exceptions to operate commercial well on land that is zoned for residential purpose.
Calling Chester County a "good neighbor," State Sen. Andrew Dinniman told the board that county residents don't resent that some of its water goes directly to Wilmington, but rather, understands its responsibility to keep its water clean and plentiful.
However, Dinniman said that the testing of the well done by Artesian last spring does indeed have many "red flags," contrary to the original results of the testing; namely, that the results were skewed because the test was done during a period of heavy precipitation.
He also said that Artesian's proposed monitoring system for the well is not adequate enough, and that additional checks and balances need to be incorporated, if the DRBC eventually approves Artesian's application.
He also praised the work and testimony of local authorities in their opposition to the well, namely Steve Allaband of the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors; Dr. Denis Newbold, formerly with the Stroud Water Research Center; and Jan Bowers, the executive director of the Chester County Water Resources Authority.
"We simply want you to talk with them, to engage in a dialogue with them in the months ahead, so that we can come to a conclusion that will be fair to all," he said. "We simply beg of you not to destroy what we have spent decades building in our county. We want the county to remain agricultural under our county plan. We want it to to remain an open space county, so that the citizens of Chester County, as well as the State of Delaware, can jointly celebrate what comes when you protect the water and protect the land.
"There is an environmental ethic in Chester County that I'm damn proud of, and I ask that the [DRBC board] protect us and our environmental ethic."
The board then heard comments from several officials and citizens, who expressed their opposition to Artesian's presence in southern Chester County. Many of them repeated the comments they originally shared at the Sept. 8 meeting, including Allaband; Jane and Marion Waggoner and Dave Yake from the Save Our Water Committee; and Newbold and Bowers.
Acknowledging the large amount of governing agencies, environmental experts and appointed and elected officials involved in this issue, Bowers offered to have the Chester County Water Resources Authority host a work session to address all comments and suggestions between concerned parties.
"We have a lot of experts and expertise in our water management community in this area, and we would like to offer that to the Commission to address these concerns...so that we can put all of our best heads together, put all of our science together, synthesize it, and get our best answer out of it," she said.
John and Darelle Riabov of Landenberg shared their story with the DRBC board about the testing Artesian did on their well in Jan. 2014 -- one of seven wells the water company monitored in the area at that time. The Riabovs said that the results of testing on their well showed a significant drop in their well's water levels during the testing, even though the Riabovs were not home at the time.
"Peter Demicco [a hydrogeologist for Artesian] attributed the result to a leak in our house," John Riabov said. "To our knowledge and to this date, we have not found any leaks in sinks, toilets or plumbing in our house.
"Long-term pumping activity at the Broad Run well will likely have significant impact on a broader area, lowering all water levels, causing catastrophic consequences to humans' well being, to homeowner values, and will cause financial hardship and environmental damage," he added.
Darelle told the DRBC board that if the Riabov's well runs dry, they would be forced to petition Artesian for water service, which she estimated would cost $15,000 for a hook-up, with a monthly fee of between $50 and $75.
"This unexpected expense would have a significant impact on us," she said. "As retirees, we are living on a fixed income, and have not made provisions for an additional hook-up and monthly water costs."
Artesian representatives spent 15 minutes attempting to refute the avalanche of comments the DRBC board had just heard. Artesian General Counsel Jack Schreppler said that Artesian has been in the public water business for 110 years, with presence not only in Chester County, but in Delaware and Maryland.
"We have a lot of experience with wells, and this is not our first allocation," Schreppler said. "I want to note that Sen. Dinniman and others didn't want us to do the aquifer pump test. That tells you something, that there's something other than reason or science at work here. He and others have taken some liberties on the monitoring of the residential wells."
Kathy Thaeder, Artesian's manager of capital projects, attempted to clear up the confusion about the well monitoring Artesian conducted on homes in the vicinity of the Broad Run well. She told the Commission that the residential well monitoring, done in coordination with the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection [DEP] originally consisted of letters of inquiry that were sent to 106 homes.
"Initially, we had five [homeowners respond], and the DEP said 'That's not suitable and the people you have are too far out. You're going to have to try harder to get people as close as possible to the well,'" Thaeder said. "So nine letters went out and that letter did have a clause."
Thaeder said that the second letter stated that "Artesian is not responsible for any pre-existing conditions in an owner's well." Two houses failed preliminary testing, so Artesian then drilled two wells near the Broad Run stream, in order to obtain more data.
Demicco attempted to reassure the DRBC board that the activation of the Broad Run well would not have any environmental impact on area wells, calling the aquifer test of last spring "perfectly valid."
"I am confident it's not going to happen," he said. "I'm not scared of it. It's not going to affect your local, domestic wells."
John Thaeder, Artesian's senior vice president for operations, closed out Artesian's response period.
"There's been a lot of discussion about, 'Why this well? Why this location?'" he said. "The short answer is that we're responsible for reliability and service to our customers, and our customers are located in that portion of southern Chester County, and they're located just across the line in Delaware. There is not one other source in that area that we can rely on for supply. It's plain and simple. We need to provide the reliability of service. We have that obligation to our customers, whether they're in Delaware or Pennsylvania."
Thaeder then gave support to the 200 gallons per minute Artesian would expect to draw from the well.
"Why 200 gallons per minute?" he said. "That is the area that we're trying to provide service to. All of that water will be consumed within a mile of this well. We're not trying to serve New Castle County significant amounts of water. We're trying to provide reliable service. It's our job. It's our mission. It's what we're supposed to do.
"It's about sustainability of a resource," he added. "It does us no good to ever harm a resource."
The DRBC board also decided at their Sept. 16 meeting to extend the deadline for public comment on the Artesian well to Sept. 30.