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Gathered by the shores of the Delaware in Washington Crossing Historic Park, Pa., protesters shout their demand: "Don't drill the Delaware." Delaware Riverkeeper Network VIDEO

Thank you for the opportunity to speak but why are we being squeezed?

 

There are lots of agencies whose actions affect the Delaware River and its watershed; the Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Office of the Delaware River Master (USGS), the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, New York City's Department of Environmental Protection and the four states' agencies whose fingers must necessarily be in the water.

The work of those agencies can be more or less transparent, and even when their work is in public, it's usually quite a hike from one end of the 330-mile river to the other — and farther afield if you have to trek to a state capital.

The Delaware River Basin Commission is centrally located, with offices in Trenton, N.J., and commission hearings often held in Washington Crossing Historic Park, Pa.

More importantly, the DRBC opens its meetings to the public, and welcomes — sort of — public comment in its four-times-a-year business meetings. The other set of four meetings are called public hearings and the public is welcome to comment but only on the matters at hand.

Here are the DRBC's rules. As always they are specific and detailed:

One set is for public hearings. A different set is for business meetings. And yet another is for Open Public Comment sessions.

On the one hand, some of the decisions that the DRBC is involved in are hot-button issues; calling a drought on the river, deciding on its position regarding fracking in the watershed, deciding on its position on the PennEast pipeline, which plans to cross the river and watershed.

These are issues that have and will create a fair amount of public involvement, but there's been an increasing attempt by the DRBC to constrain comments. Where you come down on the appropriateness of those constraints will depend largely on whether you feel your voice — your side  — has been heard.

Anti-fracking protest signs left on one of the security tables — they were not allowed in the DRBC open meeting. MEG McGUIRE PHOTOThere are usually security officers at the meetings, and each person entering the meeting room is wanded. Some might be grateful. The last meeting on June 4th was the same day as the shooting at members of Congress and their staff at a baseball field in Alexandria, Va.

Those same officers enforced a new rule of no signs. Previously, signs were allowed as long as the signs didn't obstruct the view of other audience members. Clearly advocacy groups use the signs to identify sympathizers in the audience. On Wednesday, the signs gathered in a pile on one of the entrance tables.

The "press" which is often just two or three people, is now restricted to the back row. Contrast that to the crowd of photographers at our Congressional hearings where the press fill the area between the speaker and the panel. By restraining the press, the DRBC might be making sure that everyone is safe, or it might be making it harder to get close-ups of people passionate about the issues they are speaking about. The speakers' lectern is way down front.

At this last meeting, the federal representative on the commission, Lt. Col. Michael A. Bliss, from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, spoke off the cuff about the commission and how it welcomes public input, and how proud he was that it did. He noted it was Flag Day and a good day to recognize what freedoms we have as Americans. It's unusual for commissioners to speak at these meetings. They usually pronounce an "Aye," or "Nay," or "Second," but are otherwise silent. This was a special day for Lt. Col. Bliss as it was his last day on the DRBC and he is planning to retire shortly. He did note that any off-the-cuff remarks might not be welcomed by DRBC Executive Director Steve Tambini, who tends to keep a fairy tight rein on proceedings, but all were smiling at this minor transgression by a respected commissioner.

But the contrast between his remarks and the ever-narrowing right to free expression was noteworthy.

Some of the folks who speak at the meeting are paid for their work in environmental organizations. But not everyone who spoke is a paid activist. Those deserve special mention. Thanks to the DRBC, which gave me a list of names of people who wanted to speak.

First up are people for whom I cannot find an organization they are connected to:

Kenny Collins,"The time is now to abandon fossil foolishness. I'm asking Gov. Cuomo's representative spearhead a drive in the DRCB to ban fracking."

Others spoke but their time passed quickly and I didn't get what they said, except that they spoke with a unanimous voice: Ban fracking in the watershed:

Sharon Furlong, Shirley Masuo, Patricia Libby, Kendra Baumer, Sophia Tenaglia, Val Sigstedt, Corinne Mayland, Judi Roggie and Horatio Nicholsm a resident of Hopewell Township and the Stonybrook-Millstown Watershed.

Now here's a list of people who are connected to a group. Some of these people are paid, like the staff of the DRBC, to do a job, many are not, even though they might be connected to a group.

On the top of the list, of course, would be the Delaware Riverkeeper Network.

It seems almost every time there's an opportunity for comment either the Riverkeeper herself, Maya van Rossum is there, or, on Wednesday, her able lieutenant, Tracy Carluccio:

"Today you will hear diverse perspectives from people from all walks of life who have come here to speak to you, the DRBC commissioners.  They will tell you why, from their own point of view, they each support a complete and permanent ban on fracking in the Delaware River Watershed. By curtailing the opportunities for public comment and expression with your new rules, such as no signs, no speaking out, very limited time for speaking, you are choking off the people who really care about you and your fulfillment of your mission to protect the water and environment of the watershed — the sole drinking water source for 17 million people. Please realize that opening up to more public input, such as meetings not held during the work day when most people can't be here, you will be receiving information and thoughtful comments that will help you make informed decisions."

Van Rossum and Carluccio often bring members of the network, and work with other not-for-profit environmental groups, like the New Jersey Sierra Club. Its executive director, Jeff Tittel had this to say:

"We're entering a critical time when it comes to protecting the river and the drinking water for 17 million people from fracking by passing a permanent ban now. It's more important than ever that we preserve our resources with the Trump administration in power. The people of the Delaware River Valley want to protect the treasures of the basin and support a permanent end to fracking in the region. The region is being threatened by fossil fuels through fracking and pipelines and we must stand against these projects. That is why we are urging the commission to defend the Delaware and uphold all of these protections by making the fracking ban permanent."

Tittel also read out comments from Phil Murphy, the Democratic candidate for governor in New Jersey. Murphy wrote that "fracking has no role in our energy future," that "fracking should be banned permanently," and that "fracking is not a partisan issue."

Another regular speaker is the director of Environment New Jersey, Doug O'Malley:

"The DRBC has the scientific support to move toward a ban on fracking in the Delaware River watershed. Today's hearing shows the public from all walks of life across the watershed support a fracking ban. In the Trump era, we can't depend on the federal government to protect our watershed. The public is calling loud and clear for this regional body to act to permanently protect the watershed from the threat of gas drilling."

Alyssa Bradley, energy organizer, Clean Water Action:

"I'm here today as a young person who is utterly horrified by the way this country continues to deny science and to degrade and destroy our land and water for energy. I'm here to represent over 100,000 members who are telling you to fulfill your mission to protect the Delaware."

Karen Feridun, vice chair of the Kutztown Borough Planning Commission and Founder of Berks Gas Truth:

"Our borough works hard to safeguard the water supply of the more than 5,000 permanent residents and our transient population of Kutztown University students, so Borough Council passed a resolution calling for a ban on fracking in the Delaware River watershed without hesitation, understanding the profound adverse impacts fracking has on water quality and much more."

Ann DiCampello:

"I am a member of Bristol Township's Environmental Advisory Council, but I come to you today as the mother of three young children. Water, as we know, is essential and clean water, which is free from poison and other contaminants is vital for children. Water toxins are experienced catastrophically within children and their development at all levels, including physiology, neurological development and cognitive capacities are disrupted by even the smallest of pollutants in this essential resource. It is on their collective behalf I ask you to consider permanently banning fracking in the Delaware River."

Stephanie Herron, outreach coordinator for the Sierra Club, Delaware Chapter:

"It is past time to turn the temporary moratorium on fracking in the Delaware River Basin into a permanent ban. The Delaware River is the water source for 17 million people, including thousands of Delawareans, who have everything to gain and nothing to lose if drilling is allowed in our watershed. Rather than clinging to the dirty and dangerous energy sources of the past, our states should continue to lead by banning fracking in our region — making a clear statement that we value our health, water quality and our children's future more than fossil fuels."

Robert Friedman of the Natural Resources Defense Council, also here, and speaking were Kim Ong and Shaun Abreu:

"In the age of Trump, where the federal government is doing all it can to erode basic safeguards to public health, we have an opportunity to protect our land, drinking water and communities by banning fracking in the Delaware River Basin."

Caroline Katmann, executive director, Sourland Conservancy:

"The Sourland Conservancy’s mission is to protect, promote and preserve the unique character of the Sourland Mountain region. Roughly one-third of this region is in the Delaware River watershed. The discourse over land use for fracking pits the fate of wildlife, including threatened or endangered species, water quality, recreational opportunities and agricultural resources against the wants of a few who would squander and exploit these precious resources for profit. Effective stewardship of the Delaware River Basin, which must include a permanent ban on fracking, will respect the finite limits of land and water resources and promote the conservation of exceptional resource values. Failure to respect these limits by allowing fracking will rob residents of quality water supplies, recreational opportunities and precious ecological and agricultural resources."

Faith groups were also represented.

Rev. Cynthia Crowner of Stroudsburg, Pa:

"Almost every major religious denomination in Pennsylvania is on record in opposing any expansion of fracking in our state, representing broad diversity. Pope Francis himself could not be clearer in his call to all people, not just Roman Catholics, to press for a swift transition to a clean energy future. Allowing fracking in the Delaware River watershed would further endanger the health of some of the region's more densely populated and overburdened communities."

Rabbi Malkah Binah Klein, co-chair, Philadelphia chapter of Pennsylvania Interfaith Power & Light:

"As a mother and as a faith leader at this time of crisis for humanity and for the Earth upon which we live, I believe that the only responsible path forward is a rapid transition away from extracting and burning fossil fuels, and thus I call for a permanent fracking ban in the Delaware River watershed."

Some spoke and represented groups, but I wasn't able to catch their comments. They were Wes Gillingham, the program director of the Catskill Mountainkeeper; Barbara Arrindell from the Damascus Citizens for Sustainability; and Marguerite Chandler, a resident of Bucks County, Pa., from No Fracking Bucks.

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