Damning New Evidence Raises Concerns About Threats to New York's Water from Gas Drilling
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.
One incident, which occurred in Freedom, NY in 1999, involved equipment faults on a drill rig. In a matter of minutes, methane gas migrated more than 8,000 feet (the state only mandates that drills be 1,000 feet from a public water supply, or 150 feet from a private well), bubbling up in nearby ponds. It seeped through neighbors' fields. Twelve families had to be evacuated.
The DEC's record of another mishap -- this one from Dec. 16, 2002 -- pretty much speaks for itself:
BUCKEYE COAST PIPELINE Spill: 0270494, "THE PIPELINE BREAK OCCURRED BEHIND THE MAUER'S SHOP AT 9732 SNIPERY ROAD AND WAS ON A SLOPE. THE BRINE THEN FLOWED INTO AN AREA THAT LOOKS LIKE A HARD BOTTOM SWAMP. ALL THE TREES IN THIS AREA ARE DEAD. IT APPEARS THERE IS A COUPLE OF ACRES KILLED; ALL THE TREES ARE STILL DEAD IN THIS AREA, BUT THE GRASSES AND SHALLOW ROOTED VEGETATION IS COMING BACK ALL ACROSS THE IMPACTED AREA. PB ENERGY HAS TAKEN OVER OWNERSHIP OF THE PIPELINE AND WILL WORK OUT A SETTLEMENT WITH BOTH PROPERTY OWNERS. THEY MAY TRY PLANTING SOME SALT RESISTANT TREES IN THE SWAMP AREA.
The DEC has defended its existing standards, even in light of evidence from Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting. Less than 300 spills out of 300,000 potential incidents is a good percentage, said Dennis Harrar, chief of the department's emergency response spills unit. "In the scheme of things, this is not really a problem," he recently told a local paper. But Hang disagrees. Cases like these, he argues, illustrate serious problems with both the DEC and its template for Marcellus drilling.
On Dec. 9, Hang issued a petition to New York Governor David Paterson, urging him to completely scrap the state's dSGEIS. The letter, whose 6,061 signatories include Congressman Eric Massa, New York Assembly Representative Barbara Lifton and Ithaca Mayor Carolyn Peterson, calls on Paterson to go back to the drawing board: "The "slickwater, horizontal drilling, hydrofracking" required to break up and release gas from the highly impermeable rock requires vast quantities of water and generates a wide array of toxic concerns," they argue.
"The largest problem is that [the sGEIS] is based on the assumption that the existing regulations adequately protect the public," Hang told me. "They don't."
"It's a complete theoretical model," he added. "It's an idealized model of what's supposed to happen."
One signature on Hang's petition came from Laurie Lytle, who has recently begun to worry that the filter Chesapeake helped install may not be catching some of the chemicals used in hydrofracking. Chesapeake tested her water in early 2008, but didn't disclose a complete list of its "proprietary" chemical ingredients. Lytle has been drinking her water for about two years now -- "a nice long time for those chemicals to be affecting my body and my family's bodies."
"I want to know what's in the water, and how it might be affecting my health and my property values," she said, holding a Chesapeake brochure that claims, "Property values can be positively correlated with production."
"I think I was misled in one respect."