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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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Still, many environmentalists aren’t convinced that states like New York are prepared to deal with hydraulic fracturing – especially given the enormous economic stakes and reports of contamination elsewhere around the country. "There’s nothing that says states couldn’t regulate above and beyond [a federal] baseline," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the National Resources Defense Council. "So if in fact they think they’re doing a perfectly adequate job – if that’s true – then having an EPA set of guidelines shouldn’t preclude them from doing what they’re already doing."

Whether or not New York is willing to wait around for such a baseline is unclear. Thus far, DEC has refused to talk about how EPA’s study will affect its regulatory process. "We haven’t commented about the EPA decision," Yancey Roy, an agency spokesperson, told me.

But on April 15, DEC announced it would most likely finish addressing public comments on its supplemental environmental impact statement by late summer or early fall -- and start issuing permits by the end of 2010. This is a much shorter time frame than the estimated two years EPA has said it will need to draw conclusions about the safety of hydraulic fracturing.

"The state of New York has given no indication that it has any intention of waiting for the EPA study," Goldberg said. "Unless New York elects to wait for the study, it’s going to be making a lot of policy in the interim."

Policy that will directly affect people like Fred Mayer, who is pressing charges against the company he believes caused his problems. He’s hoping to gain some compensation -- and some assurance that his tap won’t belch methane forever. In the meantime, he buys bottled water when he doesn’t feel like waiting for the gas to evaporate off his own stuff.

"Drink a lot of beer," he says, pointing to a newly opened can on his kitchen table, right next to the novelty "Bullshit" button.

On the radio behind him, Aerosmith’s "Dude (Looks Like a Lady)" has just ended. An advertisement from Chesapeake Energy, the largest producer of natural gas in the U.S., cuts through two trebly speakers.

"Chesapeake wants to arm you with the facts. We invite you to be informed."

Check out AlterNet's Byard Duncan talk about the dangers of gas drilling in the video below:


Update: On Friday, April 23, New York's Department of Environmental Conservation announced it would impose stricter regulations on gas drilling in the New York City watershed and parts of Syracuse's watershed. The new rules, which include a provision that would require energy companies to conduct individual environmental impact reviews at each well site, will likely make drilling in these areas financially untenable.

"The environmental safety protocols included in the SGEIS must fully protect drinking water supplies and mitigate significant environmental risks wherever drilling might occur," said DEC Commissioner Alexander "Pete" Grannis in a press release Friday. "Even with those protections in place, in order to better assure the continued use of an unfiltered surface water supply, there must be an additional review process which may result in associated regulatory and other controls on drilling. DEC will be vigilant in ensuring environmental safeguards."

The DEC's announcement is a victory for environmentalists in New York, but not a total one. Upstate, some residents have charged that their water should receive the same protection as New York City's.

"DEC's proposal is a tacit admission that its draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement cannot safeguard public health," said Walter Hang, an anti-drilling advocate, in an email on Friday. " Moreover, the proposal does not even provide comprehensive protection for those watersheds because it is not an explicit Marcellus Shale horizontal hydrofracking ban."