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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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"There has never really been a serious, scientific study of the impacts of hydrofracking on drinking water or the environment in general," said Deborah Goldberg, an attorney for the environmental group Earth Justice. "What I am hoping will happen with EPA -- and here in New York -- is that people will say, ‘let’s figure out the science first.’ "

Goldberg’s not alone in her concern. When DEC closed a public commenting period on its proposed environmental impact statement for Marcellus drilling in December, about 14,000 individuals and agencies had weighed in – including New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection and EPA itself.

"A greater emphasis needs to be placed on the potential health impacts that may be associated with gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing," EPA stated. "Of particular concern to EPA are issues involving water supply, water quality, wastewater treatment operations, local and regional air quality, management of naturally occurring radioactive materials disturbed during drilling, cumulative impacts and the New York City watershed."

Adding to criticisms like these is a series of recent revelations about New York’s troubled regulatory past. In December, a resident of Varick reported that her water had filled with sediments after a nearby well was hydraulically fractured (the DEC had not heard about the incident). And last week, an Ithaca-based environmental activist uncovered memos detailing more than 140 complaints of water pollution and gas migration related to drilling over the past 20 years – complaints that did not appear in a DEC spills database.

DEC maintains that incidents like these represent a small, anomalous sample from a predominantly safe undertaking. But some New York lawmakers have voiced their doubts. On March 18, Congressman Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, who co-authored the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, applauded EPA for its decision to re-investigate hydraulic fracturing.

“This is an important step towards ensuring that natural gas drilling is done in a way that protects our environment, vital natural resources and public health,” Hinchey said in a press release. “It is also a necessary step since the EPA's 2004 study on the matter was marred by biased data influenced by senior officials in the previous administration.”

The FRAC act, introduced to Congress and the Senate in twin bills last June, calls on drilling companies to disclose the chemicals they use in hydraulic fracturing -- a cocktail that has thus far remained "proprietary." It also aims to place regulatory power for fracturing back in the hands of EPA (states currently have this authority, and the strength of their drilling laws vary). 

A Hinchey spokesperson added that the EPA study could represent a first step toward a set of basic federal regulations – regulations he hopes New York will be the first state to wait for. "This is obviously an issue that calls for federal oversight," he told me in early April. "Acts of drilling don’t stop at state borders."

The industry disagrees, maintaining that current fracturing laws are more than sufficient. America’s Natural Gas Alliance, a natural gas lobbying group that formed in late March, has argued that "hydraulic fracturing practices used by its member companies to extract natural gas from the earth are environmentally sound as currently regulated."

And in a discussion draft of legislation in the Senate’s climate and energy bill, the oil and gas industry affirmed that the burden of fracturing regulation should continue to fall on states: "Chemical disclosure and industry recommended practices related to well construction and integrity are important considerations, and States should prioritize regulatory capacity as they maintain primary responsibility for regulating hydraulic fracturing."