Commission grants approval to Artesian well application
● By Richard Gaw
By Richard L. Gaw, Staff Writer
With the ringing echo of nearly two years of opposition still fresh in their ears, the five-member Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) gave approval – with a major provision – to Artesian Resources Corp.'s application to withdraw water from the Broad Run Aquifer on Broad Run and Newark roads in Landenberg. The decision came at the DRBC's Dec. 9 meeting in Washington Crossing, Bucks County.
Reading from the final recommendation before the commission members, DRBC geologist David Kovach spelled out the key proviso of the agreement: That before it can begin withdrawing as much as 288,000 gallons of water from the well a day at a rate of 200 gallons per minute -- the original numbers requested in its application to activate the well -- Artesian must submit to a rigorous, nine-month monitoring program to assure local authorities and regulatory agencies that these numbers will not decimate the water levels in the area, and in particular, local wells and the nearby White Clay Creek.
The DRBC also ruled that Artesian will conduct its own monitoring and analysis of water levels once a week during those nine months, and share these results with the DRBC, the Chester County Water Resources Authority, the Pennsylvania Office of the Department of Environmental Protection, and New Garden Township.
"I think there is reasonable happiness around this project, so I think we're quite satisfied that we did our job with the comments we were given, and we hope that applicant as well as their neighbors are OK with what we did," Kovach said. "The technical specificity of the comments [the DRBC received] really helped us to address the situation. With big, broad, giant issues [like the Broad Run well], it's difficult for us to address those things, but when you start talking about the merit of a particular type of draw-down and how it's trending, we can look at that [data and comments] and come up with a fairly thorough analysis."
"It took a while, but the DRBC acted exactly in their role, to ensure protection of the environment, while allowing for the productive and appropriate use of the resource," said Joseph DiNunzio, Artesian's executive vice president and corporate secretary. "This was not about quantity of water. This was about reliability of service within our water system. We have customers in that area who are at the very end of our water system, and we have to ensure reliability to them."
The decision was one that many believe struck a stunning compromise. It grants Artesian the eventual rights to the activation of the well – providing the data does not show evidence of harmful decreases in water levels at and near the aquifer -- but one that also takes into consideration the concerns the DRBC has heard from hundreds of those in opposition to the company's presence in Landenberg.
Since the first inklings of the Artesian application began to be heard two years ago, the narrative of opposition has been read in hundreds of letters to authorities, as well as heard loud and clear in public. The meeting on Dec. 9 served as the fourth time the DRBC, a regional body governed by five commissioners, each representing Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware, New York and the federal government -- met publicly about the Artesian application. On Sept. 8, DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini chaired a town hall meeting that was attended by well over 150 concerned residents, the New Garden Township Board of Supervisors, and DRBC member Kelly Jean Heffner. The DRBC met again at a public hearing on Sept. 15 in downtown Wilmington to vote on the application, but delayed its decision after hearing testimony from State Sen. Andrew Dinniman, geologists and scientists, local citizens and members of the Save Our Water Committee, a grassroots organization concerned about the impact of a high-volume, commercial well on homes and businesses in New Garden, London Grove, Franklin, London Britain townships and the surrounding area, whose membership numbers well into the hundreds.
The DRBC met again on Nov. 10 at Washington Crossing, when they listened to comments from Dinniman, Dave Yake and Marion Waggoner from the Save Our Water Committee, and Artesian vice president John Thaeder.
Dinniman -- a persistent opponent of Artesian's presence in southern Chester County -- said that while he appreciated the DRBC’s willingness to address the concerns of local citizens and businesses related to monitoring stream flow and water levels, he repeated his concern that the size of the project and its projected water withdrawal from the local aquifer will have a huge impact on the area's water supply.
"Artesian started this process with a blank check to go in to take as much water as it wanted, and over time, we made some real progress in ensuring that the withdrawal is closely watched and phased in over a period of time," Dinniman said. "However, I still do not believe that Artesian has demonstrated the need to take hundreds of thousands of gallons of water per day from the aquifer. And I am disappointed that the DRBC did not move to scale down the size of the withdrawal."
Critics of the ruling that places the monitoring of the Broad Run well in the hands of Artesian believe that with no unbiased, third-party agency regulating the numbers, subsequent records such as stream flows and water levels could be skewed in Artesian's favor. DiNunzio assured that the monitoring Artesian will do on the well will be conducted properly.
"Others will review everything we provide," he said. "The hydrogeologist on our staff, or someone we hire, will not put his reputation at risk by not doing an appropriate job. These are licensed professionals, and whether it us doing the monitoring or hiring someone else, they will abide by what is appropriate."
"I expect to receive comments and debate on whether or not the conclusions in those [Artesian] reports demonstrate that there are no impacts, and that we can move to the next step to begin pumping at a higher rate," Kovach said.
Although he said that the long-term monitoring program the DRBC placed on the well will help the local environment, the Broad Run stream, and private citizens’ wells, Waggoner and Yake said that they wished that the independent monitoring system the Save Our Water Committee is currently using to measure stream flow and capacity on the well would have become the official record. They also expressed their concern that the DRBC did not rule in favor of establishing a 24-hour hotline that area residents could call in the event that their wells would run low.
"We would have liked to have had the DRBC specify a level of collaboration, but Mr. Kovach told us that he's looking forward to seeing the information that we publish, and when Artesian publishes their data, he wants to hear our view on the analysis of the data," Yake said. "That will serve as an ongoing trust-but-verify layer to what comes out of Artesian."
Dinniman said that his office will continue to work with impacted residents, township officials and members of the Save Our Water Committee, to carefully watch the project and monitor its impact on local streams wells.
Although Artesian may have received the green light from the DRBC, they're far from seeing the clearing through the trees. In addition to the nine-month monitoring period, Artesian still needs to go through several layers of approval, which are certain to re-ignite the firestorm of public protest that has marked this issue from the beginning. In addition to obtaining various local zoning licenses, Artesian must also receive franchise approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission (PUC) to expand its service area. The timing of Artesian seeking PUC approval comes at a time when the PUC has yet to issue a formal ruling on the application, while it continues to sort through preliminary objections it has received about Artesian's application. PUC officials have also told Sen. Dinniman that they plan to hold a public input hearing in the New Garden Township area before issuing a final ruling.
"Residents and environmental experts have clearly demonstrated what a widespread detrimental impact the withdrawal could potentially have on their wells and the local environment," Dinniman said. "Meanwhile, it appears that a significant majority of this water won’t even be serving Pennsylvania customers. If the past is any indication, I wouldn’t be surprised if Artesian continued to try to use its lawyers to push this application through the PUC."
While Artesian begins to navigate through its next phase of approvals, DiNunzio would only speculate that the Broad Run aquifer will not be fully activated until after those approvals are met, "sometime during 2016," he said.
To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org