PENNSYLVANIA had its own sickening environmental disaster last week, when a blowout at a gas-extraction well in Clearfield County shot gas and fluids 75 feet into the air -

for 16 hours

- before it was capped.

As far as anyone can tell, this is not as serious as the BP oil spill, but it is cause for real alarm; in fact, the blowout is cause for many alarms.

Fortunately, this plume could also have at least one silver lining.

With technology allowing easier gas extraction from the state's huge Marcellus shale formation, Pennsylvania has seen a "gas rush" recently, with 3,400 drilling permits issued just in the last two years, and more than 1,500 wells drilled. The state gets revenue from land-leasing royalties and permitting fees; it's also getting money from fines imposed by the the Department of Environmental Protection. Last month, Rex Energy Operating Corp. was fined $45,000 for violations in Clearfield County.

Unlike other states, though, ours gets no tax

revenue from extraction. The silver lining from the incident is that it might help lawmakers snap out of their stupor over imposing such a tax. Last year, state lawmakers refused to seriously entertain a tax. There are signs they may be more willing this year, but the blowout in Clearfield County should elevate such a tax to a mandate.

Lawmakers have claimed that they don't want to discourage an industry in its infancy. But the major drillers in the state have been in the business for more than 50 years. And the impact such an industry has on the state is so considerable that we shouldn't be coddling these "infants."

The extraction technology involves pumping water, salt and chemicals into shale, fracturing the rock formation (called "fracking") that releases the gas. The potential for these fracking chemicals to contaminate groundwater and aquifers has many environmental advocates and citizens worried about the process and its impact on the health of the state.

In last month's blowout of a well controlled by EOG (formerly Enron Oil & Gas), this fracking wastewater shot out of the well with gas, and permeated the ground. Since the well sits on a remote site, no one was hurt, at least last week. But the longer-term risks are not known. For example, Rep. Bud George, D-Clearfield, points out that we don't know the exact amount and compositions of some of the chemicals used in the fracking process, and has introduced a bill that would compel companies to better identify the chemicals used.

The DEP has halted drilling at the Clearfield County site until it completes a three-part investigation.

Haven't we allowed enough devastating damage to be done to our land, air and water through

antiquated, laissez-faire attitudes that favor industrial growth over environmental protection? While the rest of the world has seemingly become enlightened about the scarcity of natural resources, our state's lawmakers have acted like a throwback to the 19th century, giving industry a free ride with little concern for our health and welfare.

Gas drillers are taking much from the state. They must start giving something back.

Take action: If you care about this issue, let your representatives know and urge them to tax gas extraction. Rep. George has produced a good primer on the Marcellus shale and hydraulic-fracturing issue: www.pahouse.com/george. *