Impacts of Fracking Spread Across New York and New England

More communities are discovering that risks are not confined to faraway rural well pads where the gas is fracked.

Photo Credit: Tara Lohan

Just one year ago, New York’s Governor Cuomo hovered on the brink of issuing guidelines to frack New York State. But in March 2013, mounting public demand for a comprehensive health assessment prompted Commissioner of Public Health Nirav Shah to hit the pause button. Since then, there have been no fracking guidelines issued and no green light for fracking in New York, as Shah’s investigation continues. But that doesn’t mean fracking concerns are over. In fact, in New York (and New England) fracking and its infrastructures remain one step ahead of public notice in scary ways.

The bottom line? Shale gas development, long marginalized in the media as a local problem in depressed rural communities, is a state-wide contamination web, with risks for disastrous domino effects. More and more communities throughout New York are discovering that risks are not confined to faraway rural well pads where the gas is fracked. Once pulled up out of the earth, that shale gas is being transported and its contaminants released to residents throughout the state and beyond.

Fracking Status Update

Public awareness about fracking is growing as people have learned about studies demonstrating water contamination and migration; the climate science assessing the contribution of fracking’s methane release to climate change; the concern over radon contamination from shale gas; the increase of seismic activity in fracking regions; and the re-evaluations of early inflated economic projections.

Because of this information, a powerful fractivist movement has arisen, which Bill McKibben called “one of the most successful environmental movements” of record. But despite the increase in awareness, how safe is New York from fracking today?

Many New Yorkers likely don’t know that New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation permits the use of fracking waste to de-ice some public roads. Though banned on certain county roads, it’s allowed in local towns and elsewhere. Without delving into a mass of local ordinances, it’s hard to find out exactly where it’s in use— and most people don’t know to ask.

But more potential health risks are lacking scrutiny as well.

Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper calls the current fracking halt in the state “precarious.”

“We don’t know what Public Health Commissioner Shah is studying or assessing because it’s not being done in a transparent fashion,” Gillingham said on my radio program last week.

Comprehensive health assessments have specific protocols defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But the state has opted out of adherence to those.

“At any moment, the governor could release the Department of Environmental Conservation guidelines, which are a package of regulations that could allow fracking to go forward,” Gillingham says. Given the rapid construction of a web of gas pipelines extending throughout New York State and into New England, fracking in New York would further intensify and increase shale gas development and its risks throughout the region.

Pipelines carrying shale gas pose hazards, including the risk of explosions such as the ones that claimed eight lives in San Bruno, California in 2010 and 52 people in China last month. Such explosions can devastate neighborhoods and entire towns.

Pipelines and Compressor Stations

After three years of opposition from the New York-based Sane Energy Project and other advocacy groups, New York City’s newest pipeline, the Spectra Pipeline, opened in Greenwich Village in November. It runs through a high-rent commercial and residential neighborhood, with pricey shops and cool hotels like the Standard. But few of the district’s trendy fashionistas or celebrity residents bothered to weigh in about concerns to air quality or safety from the pipeline in their neighborhood.

It’s not just one neighborhood at risk. Mountainkeeper’s Wes Gillingham cited at least 35 current infrastructure projects across New York State, including the Millennium Pipeline (which travels through the Catskill region and into Rockland County and New York City), the Iroquois Pipeline (carrying Marcellus gas to northern New York and New England), and pipelines carrying liquefied gas to LNG import and export facilities now proposed or under construction at Jones Beach, the Rockaways and elsewhere.

As pipelines reach their tentacles across New York and New England, compressor stations (which manage the flow of gas) are under construction approximately every 40 miles along their routes. In an analysis of the planned compressor station in Minisink, New York, environmental scientist Wilma Subra, a chemist, microbiologist, former vice-chair of the EPA National Advisory Council for Environmental Policy and Technology (as well as an MacArthur Fellowship Genius award recipient) recently presented to citizen groups in Rockland, Orange and Westchester counties, where communities are at risk. She said the following factors combine to produce negative health impacts:

  • Combustion products, nitrogen oxide and volatile organic hydrocarbons [are released] into the air and degrade the air quality.
  • Combustion products combine with the volatile organic compounds released by the compressors and heat and sunlight to produce ground level ozone.
  • Ground-level ozone impacts the respiratory system, lung function and cardiovascular system.

Chronic health impacts could be experienced by people residing (or working) near compressor stations, she said. Other health risks include damage to liver and kidneys, lungs, cardiovascular system, developing fetus, reproductive capacity, nervous system, brain, blood cells, and blood clotting ability.

Air pollution emissions released from drill sites, pipelines and compressor stations can travel a 200-mile radius.

Compressor station or pipeline “blowdowns” — done to maintain or clear the pipeline —regularly release high levels of noxious substances along with ample amounts of that climate change accelerator methane, Gillingham reports. Recently in New York’s Delaware County, local citizens were evacuated during a blowdown, but no regulatory body bothered to take air samplings during the event to test for any possible health impacts.

Despite a longstanding ban on liquefied natural gas (LNG) facilities since a 1973 explosion on Staten Island, the DEC recently released regulations to allow small LNG facilities. Ultimately, LNG is slated to be exported abroad to command higher prices and drive up gas prices here in the U.S. In addition, the DEC recently approved the development of LNG conversion truck carriers. Such trucks would travel around the state collecting gas from well pads and converting it. Because LNG must regularly release evaporation to prevent an explosion, populations in areas with LNG releases would also be exposed to methane, radon and other noxious compounds in the gas. There have been no studies to determine the additional contribution to climate change engendered by LNG releases.

Dispelling the early PR myth that fracking was a temporary “bridge to renewables,” shale gas development in all its forms and liquefied natural gas, and their use, transport and export represent a billion-dollar investment in, and ongoing commitment to expanded fossil fuel use.

Government Regulators

“The gas industry and Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC) are always many steps ahead of ordinary citizens,” says Clare Donohue of Sane Energy Project. When a local community belatedly learns that a pipeline or compressor station is slated for their area, “the process of financing and design is already well advanced, placing communities at a real disadvantage. It’s always a scramble to inform and gather your neighbors and respond.”

Case in point: the new Algonquin Incremental Market (AIM) pipeline proposed by Spectra Energy for completion by December 2016.

According to this plan, an expanded gas pipeline would be constructed underground from Rockland County going under the Hudson River to enter New York and Connecticut and cross Massachusetts on its way to Boston.

Particularly noteworthy in its siting are a confluence of factors beneath or near New York’s Indian Point Nuclear Plant. The pipeline, bearing radon and radioactivity laden gas from Pennsylvania’s Marcellus shale, would intersect with an underground high-voltage power line just a few hundred feet from the spent-fuel pool at Indian Point, all in close proximity to the Ramapo and Stamford faults. As we have seen in the 2011 crisis at Fukushima, the intersection of earthquakes with high-risk, manmade enterprises (like nuclear power plants) can have deadly and ongoing consequences, far beyond the capacity of industry and governments to control.

“I had a different view of democracy before,” says Donohue. “I assumed that a federal agency like FERC is there to protect the public, but that’s not what they do. They help the pipeline companies fill out the paperwork, and do their own environmental impact statements. Then FERC rubbe- stamps it. Ninety-nine percent of pipelines get approved with regulations written by the industry and the so-called environmental impact statement assessment paid for by industry.”

Grassroots groups plan to press Governor Cuomo to continue the ban on LNG and fracking. Organizations like Catskill MountainkeeperSane Energy Project and SAPE (Stop the AIM Pipeline Extension) will continue to oppose pipeline expansion.

“Shale gas development in all these forms keeps us from making the shift from carbon-based fuels. We’re killing the planet. If we as a state and a society, if we invest in gas as our future we’re kaput,” says Gillingham. “We must demand that our elected officials protect us.”

You can submit comments on the AIM project to FERC by Jan. 31, 2014 at Click on Documents and Filings. Use eComment for a short statement, eFiling for a longer one. The comment should refer to Algonquin Incremental Market Project, Docket PF13-16.

Alison Rose Levy @alisonroselevy writes on health, food and the environment. Her website is and her weekly radio program on Progressive Radio is Connect the Dots.