by Tod Westlake
The controversy surrounding the issue of hydrofracking isn’t going away anytime soon. Companies are eyeing the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale formation on top of which much of the northeast sits, and they’re eager for the financial bonanza to begin. Americans, weary of wars in the Middle East that many believe are a direct result of our energy consumption, are eager for the nation to become more energy independent by tapping our own natural resources. Drill, baby! Drill! What’s all the fuss about? We’re sitting on a gold mine, right? It’ll be great for the economy. More importantly, natural gas is environmentally friendly, isn’t it?
Many have come to learn that energy company pronouncements about clean, available natural gas are glib, sugarcoated statements that overlook the major problems associated with hydraulic fracture drilling, a process in which water—laden with dozens of different chemicals and compounds, some of which are toxic—is pumped into the ground at high pressure in order to fracture bedrock. This, in turn, releases natural gas deposits that can then be tapped for the commercial market.
The biggest, and most controversial, of the problems is contaminated groundwater. And when your groundwater is contaminated, you have little choice. You can either set up your own cistern and buy your water commercially, or you can move somewhere else, hoping that someone will now buy your essentially worthless land—and that the fracking companies won’t discover a few years down the road that your new spread is yet another hors d’oeuvre for them to gobble up.
Many New York residents, no doubt, will look to the election of our new governor as being, if you’ll excuse the pun, a watershed moment when it comes to protecting this vital resource. But Governor Andrew Cuomo has in fact indicated that he intends to lift the statewide moratorium on fracking—with some important caveats. While this might not please those folks who want to see the ban stay in place, a full statewide ban appears to be unlikely at this time.
So, what is Cuomo proposing, exactly? First, the plan would allow fracking on private lands; while at the same time it would ban the practice on state lands, in parks, and in wildlife preserves. It would also ban fracking inside the watersheds of New York City and Syracuse, the former of which encompasses much of the Catskills. Water supplies for smaller cities in New York would also be protected, according to the governor.
Nadia Steinzor, who is the Marcellus Regional Organizer with Earthworks, a nonprofit organization that works to protect communities and the environment from irresponsible mineral and energy extraction, says that the group is focusing on a regulatory framework that would hold the drilling companies to very strict environmental standards.
As of now, Steinzor says Earthworks is concerned that the recently released Supplemental General Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) prepared by the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), doesn’t look carefully enough at the long-term impacts fracking could have on the state. The SGEIS, according to Steinzor, makes certain assumptions that may not necessarily occur.
“One of the key questions, certainly for us and other organizations, is the depth to which [the DEC] are doing a cumulative effect analysis,” Steinzor says. “[This would] look at things like water withdrawal and air-impact analysis. We’re also waiting for the socio-economic [impact] study, which hasn’t come out yet.”
This later report, which is due this month, will also look at what effect the industrialization of landscapes would have. Earthworks, along with several other groups including Riverkeeper and the Natural Resources Defense Council, recently released a statement citing a number of other problems with the SGEIS. These include: no proposed ban on toxic fracking chemicals, failure to classify fracking-water byproduct as hazardous waste, inadequate provisions for drinking water protection, and the fact that some of the provisions would have sunset dates.
Other flaws cited by the groups include inadequate funding for state and regional regulatory bodies, a fragmentary review process, no analysis on the impact of public health, and, perhaps most importantly, the fact that the DEC is proposing to begin the issuance of drilling permits before the formal rulemaking process is complete.
Such caution appears to be warranted, given the negative impacts that have been associated with fracking. If you’re not familiar with the horror stories many individual families have experienced, you might start with the Josh Fox film, Gasland, the 2010 documentary that sheds light on the devastation fracking has caused in certain areas.
Dimock Township, Pennsylvania, for example, is one such community depicted in the film. Dimock is situated in northern PA, about 25 miles due south of Binghamton, in the heart of the fracking country. Family after family recount the nightmare of living in a pristine, rural community, only to wake up one morning to find that your water has gone bad to the point where it’s no longer useful for anything—you can’t shower in it, you can’t wash your clothes in it, and you certainly can’t drink it.
One of the things you may be able to do with it, however, is to set it on fire. Yes, you read that last sentence correctly. Some of those whose property has fallen victim to the impacts of fracking began to notice that their water had developed an odd aroma, and that it sometimes came out of the tap looking as if it were carbonated. Their water, it turns out, had become contaminated with dissolved natural gas, making it non-potable—and, of course, flammable.
And it doesn’t stop there. Fox collected water from fracking sites across the country and had it tested. What he found was alarming. Chemicals such as benzene were present. Given that diesel fuel, which contains benzene, is often employed as a component of the slurry used as a fracking fluid, these homeowners had little difficulty in putting two-and-two together. Millions of gallons of fracking fluid, which can contain hundreds of different chemicals, have been pumped underground, with little in the way of study taking place.
And there are other potential problems with contamination. Fracking causes a certain amount of bedrock to be brought to the surface. Much of this rock comes from miles below ground, thus it can contain high levels of radium, making the slag radioactive. Open pits containing spent fracking fluid are another concern.
And then there are the illnesses people have been reporting. Breathing problems, neurological problems, and a range of other strange and unpleasant maladies have been noted.
The fracking industry is currently exempt from provisions in the Safe Drinking Water Act. In 2005, as part of a major, and very controversial, energy bill pushed by then-Vice President Dick Cheney, the exemption was slipped into this legislation. The devastating effects of this decision are repeated throughout Fox’s film
And fighting the industry is often a fruitless battle. Those landowners who refuse to lease their mineral rights are threatened with eminent domain procedures that would force them to cede to company demands, and would be expensive to defend against. And if the neighbors surrounding you decide to allow drilling, your property line won’t stop potential problems leaching into your own groundwater.
But defending against the industry’s most egregious practices is a necessity if we hope to leave our children aquifers that contain clean, uncontaminated water, as the industry appears completely unconcerned with little else but the bottom line. And a legal fight is brewing that will pit New York state’s home-rule law, and local officials, against state authorities intent on granting drilling permits, often with very little, if anything, in the way of public input.
Again, the issue of fracking is here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. If fracking worries you, the best course of action is to educate yourself, your family, and your friends; and, of course, to organize locally. You can also look to support organizations like Earthworks; or, if you’re in favor of an outright ban, you could become involved with Frack Action New York. Riverkeeper is also asking people to write to the DEC and express their misgivings about fracking, and to extend the current public comment period on the SGEIS from 60 to 180 days, as well as to hold public hearings around the state so that residents can express their input.
For more information please visit earthworksaction.org, frackaction.com, and riverkeeper.org.