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Water, Forests and Farms in New York State Threatened by Oil and Gas Drilling

The future of this ecologically rich area is now in the hands of oil and gas companies that have leased thousands of acres to drill in the Marcellus Shale.
 
 
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Aerial photographs of land surrounding the millennium pipeline north of Sullivan County, NY show sweeping tracts of largely unspoiled forest. They are ecologically important for several species including neo-tropical migrant birds that travel from South America to breeding habitats in the northern latitudes, bald eagles, and the endangered timber rattlesnake. Some of the best soils in the state are also nearby and dairy farms have dotted the landscape since the mid 1800s, perhaps even longer. To the north and east of Sullivan County, the Catskill Park, established in the late 19th century, contains large parcels of undisturbed forest. "It is an incredibly pristine landscape," Wes Gillingham, Program Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper told me recently.

But that landscape is about to change, its future in the hands of oil and gas companies that have leased thousands of acres of land to drill in the Marcellus Shale. They will soon own the mineral rights beneath the farmland and forests and drilling will probably begin before next summer. In the town of Hancock, NY, which is strategically located on the Delaware River and near the millennium pipeline, close to 25,000 acres of land have been leased. One well, and there will likely be hundreds drilled in Hancock, requires between 1,500,000 to 9,000,000 gallons of water. Heavy truck traffic, noise, air and light pollution will become part of everyday life.

As one observer recently noted, drilling in the Marcellus Shale is "perhaps the largest rural land issue that we've ever been faced with in upstate New York." And much of the concern centers on the question of water; where it will come from, how it will be stored and treated, and what will happen if spills or accidents contaminate the ground water or nearby rivers and streams. The Delaware River provides water to many upstate towns in the Catskills as well as the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Trenton. Roughly 16 million people depend on the river basin—its streams, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers—for their drinking water. 

I visited Gillingham last Wednesday before the first public hearing on the DEC's 809 page environmental review that sets out regulatory guidelines for drilling in New York State. That same morning Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the largest leaseholder in the Marcellus Shale, announced that it would forgo drilling within New York City's watershed. The company's chief executive said in a press release that the issue had become a "needless distraction" and that since Chesapeake is the only leaseholder in the watershed area they are "uniquely positioned to take this issue off the table." 

And of course it is in their interest to take the issue off the table. Unlike rural areas throughout the country that have already been deeply impacted by natural gas drilling, from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, the possibility that New York City's unfiltered water might be at risk hasn't been good for the industry's image. "Why go through the brain damage" of drilling in the watershed, Chesapeake's CEO told the New York Times.

But residents of Sullivan County, who turned out in large numbers for the only public hearing in the critical Delaware River Watershed weren't exactly charmed by the company's move and are afraid that brain damage, in the form of toxic chemicals used to fracture the shale might await them. When Scott Rotruck, the Vice President for Corporate Development at Chesapeake made his five minute presentation and emphatically declared that the company won't be drilling in the NYC watershed residents cried, "what about us." 

"I wish I was in the New York City watershed," Cindy Gieger, a candidate for Town Council in Callicoon told me. "At least they have some kind of protection. We don't have any."  

 
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