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Damning New Evidence Raises Concerns About Threats to New York's Water from Gas Drilling

New York may be the next state to become embroiled in a mess of litigation and public outcry over a controversial drilling technique.

Shortly after Laurie Lytle and her husband purchased a home near Geneva, NY in September 2006, they noticed a yellow flier tucked in their door frame. Chesapeake Energy, one of the nation's largest developers of natural gas, had come knocking, wondering if the Lytles were interested in leasing their land for exploration. "Sign with Chesapeake Energy," Lytle recalled the flier saying: "We can give you money for not doing much."

Lytle threw it out. When she found an identical flier in the same spot a few days later, she threw that one out, too.

It wasn't long before Chesapeake ditched the paper and sent a representative to the Lytles' home -- a guy named Ivan. The amount of money he was willing to pay increased every time the couple voiced their doubts about drilling -- every time they told him his sum was "a joke." First it was $289 for the lease. Then it was more. Then more. At the end of three weeks' negotiations, Chesapeake had upped its offer to approximately $4,000, Lytle said.

"They really were pushing to get the deal done," she told me. "They really wanted us to sign."

The Lytles did eventually sign, on Feb. 7, 2007, with one contractual addendum: Were they to experience any problems with their drinking water, the responsibility would fall on Chesapeake to cover the damage. The company agreed, and for months no drilling took place. Then October came, cloudy and cold. Chesapeake finally began exploration, employing a technique called hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking for short), which involves shooting millions of gallons of water and chemicals deep underground to break up rock formations and release natural gas. Just one day after the drilling started, Lytle noticed that something had gone wrong with her water quality.

"I went to go to the bathroom and the toilet water was gray," she said. "There was sediment in it."

She called Chesapeake, which told her to wait a few days for the hazy residue to clear. When it didn't, the company cut her a check for the "damages": $273.17 for the installation of a depth filter, and $150 to cover five months' rental of said depth filter. In total, Chesapeake dished out $423.17. The Lytles' settlement was petite in its monetary value, but large in its political implications. New York has thus far not counted itself among the cluster of states (Alaska, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Ohio, Texas, Wyoming and Pennsylvania) to report cases of water contamination near fracking sites. According to the New York Department of Environmental Conservation's (DEC) Web site, "The types of problems reported to have occurred in states without such strong environmental laws and rigorous regulations haven't happened here." This may no longer be the case.

Additionally, the Lytles' problem has significant repercussions for New York's exploitation of the Marcellus Shale, an enormous, goldfish-shaped rock formation that stretches from Syracuse to northern Tennessee and is believed to contain 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas. A contentious issue, Marcellus drilling has already hit snags in Dimock, PA, where 14 families recently filed suit against Cabot Oil and Gas for allegedly contaminating their water; and in central New York, where anti-fracking signs adorn many front yards and drilling has been mired for months in a complex approval process.

This process (the state has completed a draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or dSGEIS, to determine whether or not hydrofracking in the Marcellus is safe) was most recently complicated by findings that allege decades of negligence on the part of New York's DEC. According to a November study conducted by Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca, NY-based environmental research company, there have been 270 cases of oil and gas spills in New York over the last 30 years -- 65 of which have yet to meet cleanup standards.

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