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

News & Politics

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.

"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."

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:

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/v/oxpVMvEBahs&hl=en_US&fs=1& expand=1]

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."     

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