Volume 79, Number 47 | April 28 — May 4, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

Watershed moment on fracking? New well-review rule

By Albert Amateau

The New York City watershed, which supplies 90 percent of the city’s drinking water, will require special reviews for companies seeking state permits for high-volume, horizontal hydrofracture drilling for natural gas.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation on Friday announced that it was excluding both the New York City and the Syracuse watersheds from the environmental review for hydrofracture gas drilling in the Marcellus shale formation, which underlies the state’s Southern Tier — the southern counties of New York State that stretch west from the Catskills to the Pennsylvania border.

However, D.E.C. Commissioner Pete Grannis said in the April 23 statement that gas companies applying to drill in the two watersheds would have to submit environmental reviews for each well to determine whether measures to mitigate potential impacts could be developed.

There are currently 58 applications for hydrofracture drilling in the state, none of them in the New York City or Syracuse watersheds.

Elected officials, including Mayor Bloomberg and Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer, welcomed the D.E.C. decision, but Stringer called for an outright drilling ban in the city watershed.

The decision on the two watersheds was made because the federal Safe Drinking Water Act requires that water from surface sources must be filtered except where Filtration Avoidance Determinations have been established for sources that comply with a strict array of water-quality criteria.

Both the New York City and Syracuse unfiltered water systems comply with F.A.D.’s, and maintaining them presents unique land-use issues, in addition to environmental safety of hydrofracture drilling, the D.E.C. statement said.

The process, known as “fracking,” involves drilling into the Marcellus shale formation — which lies more that 3,000 feet beneath the surface of northern Pennsylvania and New York’s Southern Tier — and horizontally injecting millions of gallons of water laced with highly toxic chemicals under ultra-high pressure to fracture the shale and release natural gas trapped in the formation.

New York State last September issued an 800-page draft generic environmental impact statement on proposed permit regulations, which critics say was drafted largely by the natural gas industry.

On Friday, Bloomberg said, “The city commissioned a study last year to analyze the impacts of hydrofracking in the watershed and found that it posed a significant threat to the quality of the water supply that 9 million New Yorkers rely on every day… . We are confident that the additional reviews now required for any drilling proposal in the watershed will lead the state to that same conclusion.”

Stringer said D.E.C. deserves praise for recognizing the special status of the Catskill/Delaware watershed, but added, “The state should go the full distance and enact a ban.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and James Gennaro, the Council’s Environmental Committee chairperson, issued separate statements, recalling two years of advocacy against hydrofracking in the watershed.

“While my colleagues and I are disappointed that the state did not ban drilling in the watershed outright, we applaud this decision as a good first step,” Quinn said.

Gennaro said he was proud of the role the Council played in “elevating the issue to the national stage,” and pledged to work with Governor Paterson’s administration to resolve remaining issues involved with hydfrofracking.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said in a statement that he was pleased with the decision, adding, “I strongly believe the state should take no further action toward the approval of permits in any drinking-water-sensitive area in New York State until the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency completes its [nationwide] study of hydrofracking, and companies are required to fully disclose all chemicals used in the drilling process.”

State Senator Tom Duane was skeptical, however, saying only a statewide drilling ban was acceptable.

“While ostensibly this is a step in the right direction to protect New Yorkers from this risky gas drilling technology, I fear it is a cynical move that will pit New Yorkers against each other,” Duane said. “Residents in New York and Syracuse will benefit from this decision while those in Ithaca and Jamestown will not.”

Duane feared that once large energy companies get a foothold in the state it would only be a matter of time before they convince D.E.C. that drilling in unfiltered water supplies is safe.

On April 15, the debate over fracking in New York State moved to The Cooper Union where a panel of experts told a packed audience that the process threatens the air we breathe, as well as the water we drink.

The mayor of a small town near Fort Worth, Tex., turned up at a Cooper Union roundtable earlier that day to say that gas drilling destroyed air quality and put toxins in the town’s water.

“The point is we were only told of the good things of the natural gas boom, not the negative side effect,” said Calvin Tillman, mayor of Dish, in Denton County, Texas, where fracking is done in the Barnett shale formation. Tillman was in the city during a trip to the Marcellus shale region where he spoke at 12 events in New York and Pennsylvania

Kevin Bone, director of Cooper Union’s Institute for Sustainable Design, told the April 15 crowd at the Great Hall that hydrofracking poses the biggest threat in the history of the Catskill/Delaware watershed, which supplies 9 million city residents with clean drinking water.

Theo Colborn, a leading expert in the health impact of toxic chemicals used in the process, said, “Air pollution must be treated as seriously as water pollution in gas drilling,” citing significant increases of ground-level ozone at gas well sites in Colorado and other Western states, and diesel pollution from machinery that operates 24 hours a day while a well is being drilled.

“Ozone in the stratosphere protects the earth from harmful ultraviolet rays, but at ground level it is associated with pulmonary damage, especially for children,” she explained.

Michel Boufadel, director of environmental engineering at Temple University, told the Great Hall crowd that studies in Pennsylvania indicated that wastewater from the process contaminated streams and groundwater with chemicals, brine and radioactivity that may last for years.

Albert Appleton, former commissioner of the city’s Department of Environmental Protection and a Cooper Union adjunct professor, said that the gas industry does not count the cost of environmental and public health damage in its claim that natural gas is a $1 trillion business.

Bone noted that the oil and gas industry for years has been able to win state and federal tax breaks.

“A year ago, most people in New York didn’t know about gas drilling and you were considered unpatriotic if you questioned oil and gas exploitation,” he said.

Colborn warned property owners tempted by money to lease their land to oil and gas exploration not to sign unless they know where on their property the well would be located.

“A hydrofracking operation lights up the night sky like daylight while the well is being drilled,” she noted.

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