“We’re going to do this safely,” stated Joe Martens, Commissioner of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) as he announced the July 8 issuing of the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Study (dSGEIS) that outlines the proposed permitting conditions for high-volume hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) of horizontal natural gas wells in the state. Included is a ban on drilling in the New York City watershed, of which most of Ulster County is a part.
“[We believe] that the only option to ensure protections for all New Yorkers is to ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State,” responded the environmental advocacy group Catskill Mountainkeeper after studying the new version of the SGEIS. While acknowledging that the current draft is an improvement over the 2009 version, Mountainkeeper’s program director Wes Gillingham said there are still major shortcomings in the proposed regulations, and the fracking issue represents “the biggest environmental crisis New York has ever faced.”
Drilling companies, environmental groups, legislators, state administrators, local officials, and citizens continue to debate the pros and cons of fracking, a method for extracting natural gas from the earth that supporters say will offer a clean-burning fuel to reduce pollution and diminish U.S. reliance on foreign oil sources. Landowners can profit from leasing fees offered by drilling companies.
Opponents say the methodology introduces its own pollution through the use of chemicals to help smash through underground rock to reach the natural gas. These toxic chemicals have made their way into the drinking water of towns in Pennsylvania and other areas of the country where fracking has occurred. The massive amounts of water required for the fracking process are said to deplete fresh water at a time when supplies of pure water are diminishing.
Adirondack Mountain Club (AMC) executive director Neil Woodworth agrees with Mountainkeeper’s assessment of the SGEIS but does not think an outright ban is realistic. “We don’t want to put our eggs into banning it, because we don’t think it’s going to happen. It might get through the state Assembly but not the Senate, and we’re pretty sure the governor wouldn’t sign it. We’re focused on getting the best environmental protections through regulations.”
Governor Andrew Cuomo has instructed Martens to fast-track the process of devising regulations, so the SGEIS came out on schedule, minus the reports being prepared by independent contractors regarding cumulative effects of multiple wells in a given area. Once those reports are in, according to the DEC website, a public comment period will be announced, probably in the fall. A period could be designated anywhere in length from 30 to 120 days, and environmental groups are calling for a 120-day span.
The best outlet for concerned citizens is to get educated on the issue, which is fairly easy to do, said Woodworth. If downloading the 1000-plus-page dSGEIS from the DEC website is too imposing, he suggests doing a Google news search for “hydraulic fracturing”, which will yield “40 stories a day that discuss this issue. Write down your thoughts for the comment period.” Hearings around the state will be scheduled, and written comments will then be accepted — whether by email or in hard copy is as yet unknown.
“We’re going to protect environmentally sensitive areas,” said Martens on the video of his announcement describing the new provisions. “Eighty percent of the land where drilling can be done will be accessible even after setbacks of 4000 feet” from watersheds and state land. “There are eight states with hydrofracking underway. New York is the only remaining one with potential for hydrofracking. We looked at accidents in Pennsylvania and elsewhere to keep them from happening in New York. We have better stormwater controls, more rigorous equipment testing, and monitoring by staff.”
Closed loop systems recommended
Treatment of wastewater from fracking is addressed by the new dSGEIS, but environmental groups say it doesn’t go far enough.
Hydrofracking a single well produces millions of gallons of wastewater that is 10 to 12 times saltier than the ocean and contains carcinogenic heavy metals, such as barium and strontium, and aromatic hydrocarbons, such as benzene and toluene, said AMC’s Woodworth. These contaminants come from materials that filter down from the process of fracturing rock to release natural gas. They are present in water that is brought to the surface and must be returned to rivers and streams.
“Very few, if any, public wastewater treatment plants can handle sophisticated treatment of heavy metals and salt,” said Woodworth. “The report says the state will allow sewage plants to treat produced wastewater, but we would like to see new standards that require certification of plants by DEC’s chemists and water specialists that the plant is equipped to treat water in the expected volumes. In Pennsylvania, there was a lot of river contamination when the industry took millions of gallons of water to ordinary treatment plants. They killed all the bacteria that are part of normal wastewater treatment, and highly contaminated water was dumped into rivers, often upstream of communities that draw drinking water out of the rivers.”
Woodworth praised the new document for recommending a closed-loop system that would keep wastewater in containers rather than in open ponds that have caused contamination through leakage and overflow in heavy rains. However, he feels the regulations should be more stringent, requiring the closed-loop system in all situations. As it stands, a permitting official could approve an open pond under some conditions.
The new SGEIS bans drilling in the aquifers supplying drinking water to New York City and Syracuse, in primary aquifers that are water sources for other communities, and on state-owned lands. However, says Gillingham, while well pads are prohibited on the surface, horizontal drilling beneath state lands is allowed.
“They’re making the assumption that if they’re drilling beneath a few thousand feet of ‘containment’ layers,” he explained, “then contaminants are not going to make their way up into an aquifer, but there’s no solid geologic evidence to back that up, only studies done over a five-day period. There are documented cases that show the potential for upward gradient of contaminants. And there’s no model that proves it’s okay.”
Furthermore, the ban on drilling in primary aquifers is specified to last two years, after which the state could reconsider the prohibition.
Another complaint by Mountainkeeper regards the state’s intention to begin processing permit applications as soon as the SGEIS is finalized but before the process of making it into law is finished.
The group’s conclusion is that “no amount of regulation, no amount of permitting guidelines, and no amount of laws and ordinances can protect our water and communities from a reckless industry as long as our regulatory industries continue to lack the staff and resources they need to properly enforce such mandates.”
In contrast, Leonard Utter, supervisor of the Delaware County town of Middletown, expressed cautious support for fracking. It will not be permitted in his town, which is located in the New York City watershed, but he has been closely researching the process.
He said, “I believe that, responsibly done, hydrofracking is probably as safe as many of the other operations that we have going on around the country, and I emphasize ‘responsibly done’. If it isn’t, there can be problems, like anything else you want to dissect. In my lifetime, I’ve been a dairy farmer, I’ve worked on building bridges, worked with machinery, and I know that accidents can happen. There are workers that don’t care, companies that don’t care, and that can be a recipe for disaster.”++
The dSGEIS can be viewed on the DEC website at https://www.dec.ny.gov/energy/47554.html