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Two Big Decisions Loom on the Fate of Drinking Water for 15 Million People Living Near the Marcellus Shale

Decisions about whether to allow fracking in NY, PA, NJ and DE may be decided in just a few weeks.

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There is no federal Environmental Protection Agency standard limiting the amount of methane in drinking water, notes Emily Wurth of Food & Water Watch. Some occurs naturally. Downs also questions whether the regulations will actually prohibit fracking in the New York and Syracuse watersheds. In any case, he adds, most people in rural central and western New York get their water from wells, so they're also drinking unfiltered water. 

Many activists believe that in order to enable fracking, Gov. Cuomo is planning to sacrifice upstate to protect New York City. "They certainly are deciding to drill around political boundaries," Downs says.

Rural Towns Threatened

The politics of the issue come down to large gas companies versus local residents worried about having their environment poisoned, with the companies trying to win local support from the money drilling generates-in jobs and in payments to landowners. In October, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor and Industry announced that there were more than 20,000 jobs directly linked to Marcellus Shale gas development, more than twice the number in 2008, although jobs in other areas related to the gas industry fell slightly.

"This data further reinforces the undeniable fact that responsible American natural gas production is an unmatched, private-sector job-creation machine," said a statement by Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group based in Pennsylavania.

Elmira, New York, a depressed industrial city just over the border from Pennsylvania, "is indirectly benefiting from the gas boom," says a local environmental activist. "The influx of gas drilling service industries is using more and more of Chemung County's underutilized industrial infrastructure. High-paying, low-skilled jobs, albeit temporary, are creating enthusiasm with the working class."

"It's a really complicated issue," says Autumn Stoschek of ShaleShock, an Ithaca-based activist group. She lives in Van Etten, a small town nearby. "It's a depressed area, but on the other hand, it's a rural area, and people really like the outdoors." The rural residents are more likely to display gas-company logos in their yards than the anti-fracking signs that dot the college town of Ithaca, she explains, but they're suspicious of both environmentalists and corporations. 

The Southern Tier has a long history of gas drilling, she says, but when fracking came in, "it was a big turning point," as large corporations replaced "mom-and-pop gas companies." Her parents signed a gas lease for $2 an acre in 1999. In 2005, Fortuna Energy drilled a horizontal well on their farm. Some now "regret that they signed the lease," says upstate activist Lisa Wright. The gas-company "landsmen" who arranged the deals, she explains, didn't tell them "it's a huge industrial process. It involves hundreds of truck trips per well."

"People had no idea what they were dealing with," says Stoschek. "When they don't restore your fields and leave a rubble pile, they tell you to sue them." The pressure on homeowners to settle lawsuits is huge, says Gloria Forouzan. When people can't live in their home because the water is destroyed, they can't sell it either, so they are desperate-and gas companies demand silence as part of the settlement, she says.

"Working-class people don't have the means to get a corporate lawyer to fight this kind of thing," says Wright.

"We're a sacrifice zone," Stoschek concludes.

In New York's Sullivan and Delaware counties, in the Catskill Mountains on the eastern side of the Delaware, a poll taken in early October found more than two-thirds of residents willing to support a fracking ban. The practice would bring money to the area, says Bruce Ferguson, but at the expense of tourism, farming, and land values. "People value above all the rural character," he says. "They don't want to live in an industrial zone."

 
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