With deadlines looming over the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to decide on whether or not it will allow gas and fuel companies to utilize the controversial gas-extraction drilling technique known as hydrofracking to be permitted in New York, state Department of Health (DOH) commissioner Nirav Shah said that a critical health review is going to take longer. `In a letter to DEC commissioner Joe Martens, Shah stated that his agency’s review of the unreleased DEC health study on potential negative impacts from hydrofracking will require additional time to complete, “based on the complexity of the issues.” He is undertaking the review with the help of three outside experts hired by the DEC, and plans to go on a trip to Pennsylvania with other New York State officials to see firsthand the results of hydrofracking. He said that his review would be done “within a few weeks.”
Martens said that the extended health review may not necessarily interfere with the DEC’s decision to provide permits for hydrofracking, which relies on a high-pressure mix of chemicals, water and sand pumped deep into the ground to break up gas-bearing rocks. The technique has spawned a vocal opposition movement, with scientists and victims of hydrofracking in other states concerned about the potential pollution that the chemicals cause to both the groundwater supply and air quality, among many other health and environmental impacts.
The DEC faces two deadlines this month: one to release an overall environmental review for hydrofracking, and two the issue of regulations to control how wells would be drilled. In order for the proposed regulations to be issued by Feb. 27, the DEC would have to issue its overall environmental review, known as the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS).
In a prepared statement, Martens said the DOH delay won’t necessarily collide with that timetable. While regulations cannot be finalized until the SGEIS is complete, this “does not mean that the issuance of permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing would be delayed,” he said. This statement caused great concern among opposition groups, who put Martens on notice that lawsuits would be filed if he issued permits before the DOH commissioner had completed his review.
If Shah finds that the DEC review was adequate, Martens wrote, the DEC can adopt its SGEIS and begin accepting drilling permit applications after ten days. Regulations could be adopted later that “simply codify the program requirements,” he wrote. Should Shah find that the DEC failed with its health study, “we would not proceed, as I have stated in the past.”
In anticipation of the DOH review on hydrofracking, many opposition groups, including New York Students against Fracking (NYSAF), called upon governor Andrew Cuomo to let the regulations expire, send the DEC back to the drawing board and not issue any horizontal drilling permits this year. At SUNY New Paltz, concerned students held a “Don’t Frack Our Hearts, Governor Cuomo” news conference where they symbolically signed a massive Valentine for the governor, pleading with him not to allow fracking in New York State.
“Clearly, Albany wants fracking to go forward in the state. Yet the cost could very well be the health and safety of New Yorkers and our environment,” said New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG) leader Jade Schwartz. “It is doubtful that the DEC is able to oversee and monitor the level of permitting involved in their proposal, given their insufficient resources and understaffing,” she added.
Schwartz claimed that the debate over permitting high-volume slick-water horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas is the “most contested environmental issue of our time. Politicians, corporate leaders and a couple of landowners tout that ‘fracking’ is the solution to revitalizing the economy in New York State. Attempting to heal New York’s failing economy with extreme energy extraction on this level is like trying to heal a gunshot wound with gauze.”
In her estimation, she said that, while fracking may provide a temporary boost to the economy, “In turn, the permanent economy of upstate New York is in great jeopardy. A large portion of the driving force of upstate New York’s economy has always depended on environmental preservation, our agricultural industry. Cattle ranchers, winemakers, apple farmers and maple syrup producers are facing future possibilities of contaminated products, loss of natural resources and a decline in demand. When they have ‘fracked’ all of our gas and degraded our land beyond any sustainable use, the destruction ‘fracking’ will leave us with will make it merely impossible for our economy to make any type of long-term recovery.”
SUNY New Paltz student and NYPIRG intern Meghan Spoth said, “The decision made by New York State with regard to fracking will be a true test on whether true democracy exists here or not. It is clear that with over 100 municipalities and cities in the state creating local bans against hydrofracking, and over 204,000 written comments to the DEC to reject fracking, the majority of us do not want this to occur.”
Both the town and village of New Paltz have passed laws banning hydrofracking or any related activity within their boundaries to protect their citizenry, farmers, water supply, air quality and environmental well-being. These sentiments were backed by groups throughout the state, including the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter, Earthjustice and New Yorkers against Fracking. Sandra Steingraber, who heads New Yorkers against Fracking, stated that the group’s leaders “are confident that such a review will show that the costs of fracking in terms of public health are unacceptable. Commissioner Shah has indicated how important it is to do this right, which means bringing the public and New York State health experts into this process.”
Two members of the New York State Senate, Terry Gipson and Cecilia Tkaczyk, sent out a joint statement applauding DOH commissioner Shah’s continued study on fracking health impacts. “We applaud Governor Cuomo and DOH commissioner Shah for embracing further scientific review of fracking, rather than rushing to meet arbitrary deadlines,” the two state senators stated. “As Commissioner Shah said, the first comprehensive studies of the health impacts of fracking are just being initiated, and New York State needs all the information before making a decision.”