Volume 79, Number 21 | Oct. 28 - Nov. 03, 2009
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

More water worries over state’s drilling safeguards

By Albert Amateau

Elected officials joined city Department of Environmental Protection and local environmental advocates last Friday in denouncing the state proposal to allow drilling for natural gas in the six Upstate counties of the New York City watershed.

The concern about the potential threat from the hydraulic-fracturing drilling method to the safety of the Catskill/Delaware watershed, which supplies 90 percent of city’s drinking water, prompted the City Council’s Environmental Committee to hold an Oct. 23 hearing on a resolution demanding an outright ban on gas drilling in the watershed.

Community Boards 1 and 2 — covering Lower Manhattan and Greenwich Village — environmental advocates from the Bronx and Westchester and groups, including Riverkeeper, the Natural Resources Defense Council and NYH20, testified in favor of a ban on natural gas “hydrofracking” wells in the city’s watershed. 

The threat, impending for about a year, became imminent Sept. 30 when the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation issued an 809-page draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., on hydro-fracture drilling in the Marcellus Shale Formation that underlies 27 counties in the state’s Southern Tier, including the city watershed.

The E.I.S. includes new standards intended to mitigate the negative impact of such drilling. The standards cover well spacing, the size of well pads, the source and transportation of huge volumes of water used in hydrofracking, the storage of chemicals — many of them carcinogenic — used in the drilling process and other issues.

But critics at the Oct. 23rd hearing, conducted by Councilmember James Gennaro of Queens, who chairs the committee, said the proposed safeguards were inadequate compared to the risk to the watershed, which supplies 1 million residents in Westchester, Putnam, Orange and Ulster Counties in addition to the 8.4 million in the five boroughs.

“Hydro-fracturing drilling in the watershed creates the potential to jeopardize public health,” Steven Lawitts, acting commission of the city D.E.P., said at the hearing.

Hydrofracking, Lawitts explained, “requires clear-cutting of forest, construction of new roads and well pads, the storage and use of chemicals that can include benzene and other carcinogens, and surface impoundments or tanks to store those chemicals.” In addition, drilling into and fracturing the shale formation 3,000 feet to 7,000 feet below the surface can damage aqueduct tunnels and other water-system infrastructure and contaminate groundwater, he added.

In 2007, the federal Environmental Protection Agency granted the city a 10-year extension to the exemption from the requirement to build a filtration plant for the Catskill/Delaware system because of the city’s initiatives, including the purchase of 70,000 acres and the promise to acquire more land to insure the purity of unfiltered water from the area.

“If the E.P.A.’s Filtration Avoidance Determination is revoked because of impacts from natural-gas drilling, a filtration for the Catskill/Delaware system will have to be built at an estimated construction cost of $10 billion and $100 million per year to operate,” Lawitts said.

“If the state decides to permit [hydrofracking in the watershed], then it must include and account for the cost of a filtration plant and its operation,” Lawitts added. 

Although Governor Paterson recently issued an order that the fiscal impact of any mandate should be evaluated to consider the cost to local government, the state has not guaranteed that it would bear the cost if water supply is compromised by natural-gas drilling.

“Every activity in natural-gas drilling poses a risk to the water supply,” said Paul Rush, the city’s deputy commissioner of water supply.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer said, “I am shocked that the [state environmental agency] would even contemplate the potential exposure of New York City’s unfiltered water supply to benzene, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, hydrochloric acid, toluene and hundreds of other…chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing.”

The rules do not go into effect until after D.E.C. completes a 60-day public comment period. But officials at the Oct. 23 hearing called for an extension of the comment period by another 45 to 60 days.

In New York City, the public comment session will be on Nov. 10 at 7 p.m. at Stuyvesant High School.

Stringer urged people at the Oct. 23 hearing to attend the Nov. 10 comment session. He also called on Governor Paterson and D.E.C. to modify the E.I.S. to explicitly ban hydrofracking in the Catskill/Delaware system.

“In general this is a pro gas-drilling document,” said James L. Simpson, staff attorney for Riverkeeper, regarding the E.I.S. “It is evident that the D.E.C.’s Division of Mineral Resources wants nothing more than to issue drilling permits as soon as possible,” Simpson said.

Gennaro suggested that the state environmental agency, with jurisdiction over the water supply, could ban hydrofracking in the watershed area. 

But Lawitts replied, “We cannot outright ban a specific activity in watershed land.” The statement was challenged by Eric Goldstein, a lawyer with the National Resources Defense Council, who said, “We believe the city has the potential to prohibit conduct on the watershed.”

Goldstein said N.R.D.C. does not oppose natural-gas extraction as such, but “some areas of the state that serve as primary drinking water supplies should simply be placed off limits to industrial gas drilling because of the inherent risk and the fundamental long-term responsibility of government to protect public water supplies.”

Gennaro, a geologist by profession who has been calling for a ban on natural-gas drilling in the watershed for more than a year, said the State Department of Health was the ultimate custodian of the water supply and should take a role on the issue of drilling in the watershed.

Although the federal E.P.A. has not weighed in on hydrofracking in the watershed, John Williams, of the U.S. Geological Survey, a non-regulatory scientific organization within the U.S. Department of the Interior, did testify on Oct. 23. Although the state E.I.S. proposed several measures to mitigate the impact of shale gas development on the state’s water supply, the measures need to be defined more clearly and be subject to further evaluation.

Williams said the potential for surface water and groundwater contamination under the proposed measures is significant. The cumulative impact of withdrawing water from the Susquehanna and Delaware River basins for hydrofracking is another problem, he said.

City Comptroller Bill Thompson, Assemblymember Deborah Glick, state Senator Tom Duane and Council Speaker Christine Quinn also submitted written testimony to the Oct. 23 hearing, saying that hydrofracking in the watershed posed unacceptable dangers to the city’s drinking water.

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