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The Auburn City Council, reacting to growing pressure from residents concerned about the impact of natural gas drilling on the environment, signaled last week that it may vote on a moratorium for taking gas well wastewater at the city treatment plant.

Taking such a step is a big deal, because the city has generated hundreds of thousands of dollars processing this water through the years.

To be clear, the city has not been processing water used in the controversial horizontal hydrofracturing operations in Pennsylvania; Auburn has been taking water from vertically drilled wells, which has fewer contaminants than horizontal well water, but nevertheless is far from pure, drilling opponents say.

With all the recent attention on natural gas drilling’s environmental impact, other municipalities around the state have stopped taking any form of well wastewater in recent months. Auburn is one of just two plants left in the state, according to the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Earlier this year, Auburn disclosed that several gas drilling companies failed to comply with reporting requirements for bringing wastewater to the city plant, although all of these companies certified that they did not bring Pennsylvania Marcellus shale wastewater.

Given all that is not known about what’s in the water from vertically fractured wells and the need to be especially vigilant that water arriving in Auburn is not from Pennsylvania’s horizontally fractured wells, we support the establishment of a moratorium.

But the moratorium must be used wisely. It should not be indefinite and city officials should use the time to put together a thorough assessment of the situation so an informed decision can be made about long-term policies.

In addition, the city’s 2011-2012 budget should not reflect well wastewater revenue, because that’s a funding stream that can’t be relied upon at this point to help balance out expenditures.

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