Volume 80, Number 13 | August 26 - September 1, 2010
West and East Village, Chelsea, Soho, Noho, Little Italy, Chinatown and Lower East Side, Since 1933

‘It’s our land,’ defiant owner tells fracking forum

By Albert Amateau

The City Council’s Tuesday forum on
proposed hydrofracture natural gas drilling in the state, which potentially threatens most of the city’s drinking water, attracted about 200 people, including officials from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and two Upstate property owners who support the controversial process.

Known as “fracking,” the process calls for drilling into the Marcellus shale formation that lies 3,000 feet under the state’s Southern Tier of counties on the Pennsylvania border, and horizontally injecting millions of gallons of water laced with a cocktail of toxic chemicals and sand to release natural gas trapped in the rock. The formation also lies under the Catskill-Delaware watershed that supplies the drinking water for millions of city and Westchester residents.

The City Council last year called for a ban on fracking in the state and the Bloomberg administration is opposed to gas drilling in the watershed. Council Speaker Christine Quinn and Councilmember James Gennaro of Queens, who ran the Tuesday forum, have been concerned for more than two years about the impact of hydrofracking on the watershed.

Carter Strickland, deputy commissioner of the city Department of Environmental Protection, told the Tuesday forum that fracking poses a threat to the watershed where New York City has spent millions of dollars over the years to acquire buffer land to protect the water supply.

“We’ve proved we can protect the water supply of millions of people, allowing us to be exempted from the federal requirement for a filtration system for the Catskill-Delaware watershed,” Strickland said. But drilling in the watershed could cause chemicals, including benzene, a known carcinogen, to migrate into the water supply, he noted. An estimated 3,000 to 6,000 wells could eventually be drilled in the watershed counties, all required site clearing, access roads and other infrastructure.

Degradation of the watershed would threaten the filtration exemption and force the city to spend an estimated $10 billion to $20 billion to build the system, plus an estimated $100 million a year to maintain it, Strickland said.

Moreover, environmental advocates contend that filtration might not protect drinking water from dissolved fracking chemicals.

Bad news for the city water supply; but two witnesses at the Tuesday forum talked about the bright side.

Ray Olson, of Windsor, N.Y., and president of the Greene Co. Landowners, said that there are more than 1 million acres in watershed counties, including Greene, and 90 percent of them are privately owned.

“It’s not your watershed — it’s our land,” Olson told the hostile crowd. Oil and gas companies have offered landowners $10,000 per acre to lease their property, he said. Enough natural gas is in the Marcellus formation to make New York State the first in the nation to be completely energy self-sufficient and bring cheap energy costs and employment to the state, Olson said.

He also found the upside in risk that New York City would have to spend $10 billion for a filtration plant.

“It would employ hundreds of people for years,” Olson said. “Cuomo is a real friend of the gas industry, and I hope when he becomes governor we can look forward to the benefits of natural gas,” he added.

Briany Murphy, a landowner in Broome Co., which is outside the city watershed, told the forum that rather than “fear mongering” to ban hydrofracking, residents should make sure the state adequately regulates drilling.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation is still considering an 800-page draft generic environmental impact statement, or E.I.S., on rules for hydrofracking. But critics say the gas industry was the main influence on the E.I.S.

Nevertheless, the state Senate voted earlier this month for a 10-month moratorium on hydrofracture drilling throughout the state. The Assembly has not yet passed its version of the bill to be presented to Governor Paterson.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has held hearings recently in Texas, Colorado and Pennsylvania on a planned two-year $9 million study on the impact of fracking on groundwater throughout the nation. An E.P.A. hearing in Binghamton, N.Y., was cancelled last month but the agency has promised to reschedule it sometime in September.

Anita Thompkins, E.P.A. chief of drinking water and municipal infrastructure, and Bruce Kiselica, E.P.A. chief of drinking water and groundwater protection, submitted a statement at the Tuesday forum but did not speak.

Their statement said in part, “Natural gas is a key element of our nation’s clean energy future.” The statement also said that over the next two years, the E.P.A. will study the potential harmful affects of hydrofracking on public health and the environment, specifically on drinking-water resources.

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