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The Newest Gold Rush: The Frenzy for Natural Gas Threatens New York's Water

In New York, even though the drilling hasn't begun, the battle lines have been drawn.

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Queens assemblywoman Toby Ann Stavisky told WNYC Radio that she and most of her colleagues learned of the DEC sponsored bill just hours before they were asked to vote on it.

"Why didn't I have more information was my first reaction because it's very detailed scientific language. What's going to happen to the environment, to the air quality, noise pollution, what about pipelines?" 

Information it seems has been in short supply. Horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have not exactly been the subject of dinner table conversations until very recently (on the East Coast anyway). And the industry would like to keep it that way. Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is a controversial method of capturing natural gas by injecting a long list of chemicals and millions of gallons of water and sand at high pressure into the ground to break open or fracture the bedrock. The prized gas is released from the shale and then recovered.

The chemicals used in the process, developed by Halliburton in the 1950s, are considered an industry trade secret and have not been fully disclosed. Some of the known additives include hydrochloric acid, nitrogen, biocides, surfactants, friction reducers, benzene and other hazardous chemicals. It is believed that fracking fluids have contaminated water supplies in Alabama, Arkansas, New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Montana, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming -- all places where hydraulic fracturing has been widely used. In Pennsylvania, where drilling in the Marcellus Shale began last year, there have been numerous reports of contaminated wells.

"If these chemicals reach our drinking water supply," the City's Council on Environmental Protection wrote in a briefing paper, "they can potentially have significant adverse health effects." A small part of the Marcellus Shale lies within the New York City watershed, which supplies water to more than fourteen million people in New York City, upstate New York, Philadelphia and northern New Jersey, the largest unfiltered drinking water supply in the United States. 

Since the spacing bill was passed, environmental organizations have moved quickly to make sure that if drilling begins -- and there are few who think it will be stopped altogether -- it is done with strict regulatory oversight and adherence to the highest environmental standards.

Catskill Mountain Keeper, an environmental organization in Youngsville, NY, and seven other groups, national and local, drafted a letter to Governor Paterson calling on him to "institute a moratorium on all new gas drilling permits" until an environmental impact statement is completed. They met soon after with the Governor's office and the DEC and, groups that until then had been working largely on their own started to come together. 

A compromise was reached and when the governor signed the bill he also required the DEC to issue a Scope Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) that responds to concerns of citizens and environmental organizations (the final document will likely be released this summer). It was an important reprieve and, combined with a steep drop in the price of natural gas and oil and evidence of contaminated wells in nearby Pennsylvania, there is hope that the rush to drill has been tempered, at least for now. 

"One thing that's happened," says Wes Gillingham, Program Director of Catskill Mountain Keeper, "is that this whole issue has awakened people to the complexity of hydro fracking and the whole issue of regulatory oversight and whether it's adequate or not. And to the basic question of whether it can be done safely at all."

Or as Ferguson puts it, "You cannot pick up a local paper up here now and not see something about it."

 
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