Busloads of activists - both for and against drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania - converged on the Delaware River Basin Commission Wednesday to plead their cases.

Heckling and jeering characterized three hours of public comment, with so many people attending that the meeting was moved from commission headquarters in West Trenton to a nearby fire hall.

Even then, the crowd exceeded the room's 400-person capacity, and about 165 people had to wait outside.

Many had driven several hours from northeastern Pennsylvania, where contention about drilling for natural gas in the productive Marcellus Shale geologic formation has polarized residents.

While drilling is moving forward elsewhere - the state has issued nearly 1,500 Marcellus permits this year - the commission has effectively halted most drilling in the sprawling river basin by deciding that regulations specific to natural-gas activities must be developed first.

The yelling began at a rally out front.

"Every drill site is a potential Superfund site!" hollered Tracy Carluccio of the Delaware Riverkeeper Network, a nonprofit organization opposed to drilling. Her supporters waved signs that read "Save our rivers" and "No frackin' way" - a reference to the process that involves fracturing a well with water and other chemicals, some of them toxic, to release the gas.

Inside, farmers and property owners from northeastern Pennsylvania, many of whom say they need money from drilling leases to hold on to their land, held signs that proclaimed, "Natural gas now. America's future is under our feet," a reference to their belief that natural gas is an important bridge fuel to wean the nation off foreign oil.

The interstate commission, which regulates water withdrawals and water quality over hundreds of miles in four states, took no action that would have a significant immediate effect. But it agreed to requests for public hearings, including one for an appeal of a decision not requiring a gas company to get permission for a test well in Nockamixon Township in Bucks County and another asking that no test wells be subject to commission review.

The commission has put these drilling decisions on hold - enacting an effective moratorium - until it develops specific natural-gas regulations.

Executive director Carol Collier said regulations had been drafted and were under review, adding they might be put out for public comment this fall.

The commission took no public comment on any of its actions. But at the end of each meeting the commission invites further comment. That's what drew Wednesday's crowd.

For more than three hours, at a clip of two minutes per person, the commission listened as supporters and opponents of drilling delivered impassioned pleas - frequently interrupted by derision or applause - to continue the moratorium or to allow drilling.

Marian Schweighofer, who has a 700-acre farm, said five busloads of members of the North Wayne Property Association had attended to object to the decision not to allow many test wells to go forward. "It absolutely took away our property rights," she said.

Barbara Arrindell, executive director of the opposition group, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, said dozens of her members had come because the commission "is making key decisions at this point. That affects our future."

Drilling-Site Fire

The state Department of Environmental Protection is investigating a fire at a natural-gas well pad

in Susquehanna County

in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Local fire crews and company workers extinguished Tuesday night's blaze at the Chesapeake Energy site in Auburn Township after about two hours. There were no evacuations or injuries, the department said Wednesday.

The well was drilling into the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation underground. The site will be closed while repairs are made and the state finishes its investigation.

No chemicals or water leaked, DEP spokesman Tom Rathbun said.

- Associated PressEndText

Contact staff writer Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147 or sbauers@phillynews.com. Visit her blog at http://go.philly.com/greenspace