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Flammable Drinking Water? Why Gas Drilling in New York and Nearby States Could Become an Environmental Catastrophe

A new EPA study could completely reshape natural gas drilling practices in the U.S. But will New York wait around for the findings?
 
 
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Fred Mayer is sitting at his kitchen table in Candor, NY, smoking a cigarette he probably shouldn’t be smoking.

This particular cigarette is the third one he’s lit in the past 10 minutes. A second ago, it was lying on the table in front of him next to three pocketknives, two inhalers and four other untouched cigarettes. Now it’s wedged between two tattooed knuckles on his left hand (the “D” and “U” of the word “DUCK”). Its smoke rises between us in a quivering ribbon.

Mayer, a heavyset Vietnam vet, shouldn’t be smoking this cigarette because his house and property are inundated with high levels of methane gas. There’s so much of it that he can hold a barbecue lighter up to his tap and watch his drinking water explode in a blue fireball.

Mayer blames his problems on natural gas drilling operations a few miles away. He believes the methane escaped during hydraulic fracturing (a process that involves shooting water, sand and a mix of chemicals deep into the ground to break up rock and release gas), then migrated through two underground fissures that converge about 100 feet from his well. Industry representatives disagree, as does New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation. Without ever visiting Mayer’s home, the DEC issued a notice of cleanup on Feb. 25, 2009. No such cleanup ever took place.

"DEC never investigated a damn thing here," Mayer told me. "They didn’t come out here. They gave me a spill number. That’s it."

A few weeks ago, Mayer’s problems wouldn’t have been considered problems at all -- not by DEC, which has claimed that no link exists between hydraulic fracturing and drinking water contamination; and not by the federal Environmental Protection Agency, which concluded in a 2004 study that hydraulic fracturing “poses minimal threat to the underground sources of drinking water…Additional or further study is not warranted at this time.”

Now Mayer’s problems are becoming real problems. On March 18, EPA announced it would launch another, more thorough hydraulic fracturing investigation. The decision came in part as a response to increasing numbers of water contamination complaints near drilling sites across the country. One series of incidents, in Dimock, PA, occurred just 58 miles south of Mayer’s home.

According to Enesta Jones, a spokesperson for the agency, the new study will include testing, monitoring and modeling efforts to produce data rather than just analyze it. It will also reassess drilling’s relationship to residual hazards like methane migration.

"This study will be broader in scope," she said in an email interview. "Anecdotal evidence indicates potential adverse impacts on drinking water from the processes used to produce natural gas. There is, however, a lack of scientific information to verify these concerns. This study is intended to both provide data where there is a lack of adequate information, and contribute to resolving these scientific uncertainties."

The resolution of these "uncertainties" will have considerable reverberations in New York, where DEC is in the final stages of drafting regulations for drilling in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation that extends under parts of Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and southern New York and is believed to contain between 168 trillion and 500 trillion cubic feet of natural gas.

For the past year, New York has been engulfed in a debate about whether or not horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus can be done safely (the state has allowed shallow vertical drilling in other formations for decades). While advocates say Marcellus exploration could produce 175,000 new jobs and $13 billion per year for the state, critics charge that the DEC, under immense political and economic pressure, is expediting drilling at the expense of water quality. They want the agency to wait for EPA’s findings, rather than base new laws on science they consider outdated and insufficient.