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A question of intent

March 24, 2011

The table of compatible uses on page 134 of the River Management Plan (RMP) lists “gas/oil fields” as a permitted conditional use in the Delaware River corridor. But whether that phrase, written in 1986, can be taken to refer to modern horizontal hydro-fracking operations is a matter of controversy. In thrashing out the issue, we have heard both proponents and opponents of drilling in the corridor make varying assertions as to the RMP’s “original intent” on the subject.

The issue came up at two recent Upper Delaware Council (UDC) meetings, but led to two different conclusions. At the March UDC meeting, a number of members argued that the people who drew up the plan could not possibly have intended the term “gas well” to mean the gigantic industrial installations comprised by modern horizontal hydro-fracking, which didn’t exist at the time. But at a meeting of the UDC’s Project Review Committee the previous week, Tom Shepstone opined that that’s exactly what the plan intended, claiming authority on the grounds that he was chairman of three of the groups involved in drafting the plans and saying that “no one knows more than I do about what it says and what it means.”

The problem with taking the word of any one individual as to the plan’s original intent, however, is that a great many people were involved in constructing the RMP, and they don’t all agree. Glenn Pontier, editor of The River Reporter at the time, for instance, was involved in various phases of the RMP’s development, including serving on the Plan Oversight Committee. He believes that the introduction of hydro-fracking would run counter to the whole concept of the RMP. The genius of the plan, in his view, is the fact that it sought to preserve not only natural resources but the entirety of the valley, including its commerce centers, its people and its occupations. That’s why it made sense to include traditional land uses like bluestone mining and agriculture in the river valley. In contrast, modern horizontal hydro-fracking, which Pontier said “was never contemplated,” would violate the very character of the society that the plan was designed to preserve.

Barbara Yeaman, a member of the Plan Oversight and Land Use Guidelines committees, shares Pontier’s reservations. When asked whether horizontal hydro-fracking would be included under the land-use guidelines, she responded, “Oh no, that would be heavy industrial use. That could even start condemnation proceedings.”