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Our Water Supply and Our Future

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  • Our Water Supply and Our Future

    Suspension of disbelief, just plain ignorance, unscrupulous political expediency, or just plain moral turpitude and corruption? That?s the question. In June of 2008, almost a year ago, in the waning hours of the legislative session, just before summer recess, the New York State Assembly viewed a slideshow presentation by personnel from the State?s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on horizontal hydraulic fracture natural gas drilling (?fracking?), a technology recently devised by the Halliburton Corp., and then, with little time for members to carefully examine the bill, passed Assembly Bill #A-10526A, which speeded up the procedure for using this technology to tap into the natural gas deposits in the Marcellus Shale Formation underlying the southern tier of Upstate New York and extending into Pennsylvania, eastern Ohio, and West Virginia. The Senate version passed very soon after, and in July, it was eagerly signed by Governor Patterson. Even though the use of this technology in several western states, and in Pennsylvania and Ohio had resulted in many mishaps to water supplies, air quality, farmland, and people?s health, a majority of the legislators and Mr. Paterson apparently accepted uncritically the line put out by the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission, which goes, ?in all oil and gas states surveyed, there was not one instance of drinking water contamination in over one million frack jobs.? How could our government officials afford to accept that statement at face value since not only are there no studies of actual past performance of horizontal hydraulic fracture gas well drilling in New York State, but there have already been cases of drinking water contamination in Pennsylvania and Ohio? Doesn?t it behoove our public officials to adhere to the precautionary principle, since we know that accidents do happen and at some point will happen, and the damage is irreversible?

    The Marcelllus Shale Formation underlies New York?s Catskill-Delaware watershed, the source of most of the City?s water supply. The fracking process requires three to five million gallons of water for each well drilled, and this is combined with about 275 different chemicals, at least 60% of which are toxic, plus sand. These are sent below the ground surface in the drill shaft, and at a depth of between three and nine thousand feet, the shaft turns into the rock in a horizontal direction and shoots the fracking fluid at extremely high pressure into the rock to cause cracks that allow the gas to seep out into the shaft. The massive quatities of water used in this process may be drawn from the aquifers themselves, in which case there would be shortages of potable water for both local consumers and for those further away, including New York City dwellers. There may be actual depletion of the aquifers.

    When the natural gas is brought to the surface, about 70% of the fracking fluid is also brought up through the steel and concrete shaft. The level of the shale fracture may be far below the level of an aquifer but the 30% of the fracking fluid that remains underground can still migrate upward and leach into the aquifer. As for the fluid that comes to the surface, it must be transported to a treatment facility, usually a wastewater treatment plant, but until that happens, this toxic soup will be stored in a pit onsite, from which it can leak into the ground, or from where stormwater can swamp it, causing it to overflow and contaminate the surrounding environment, including nearby streams.

    Do jobs and the economy outweigh our need for water, in an age of global warming induced drought? Do we really want to turn our rural Upstate into an industrial wasteland? There are those who believe these operations will boost local economies, but we already know that the oil and gas service companies, which are mostly based in Texas, don?t employ local people, but bring their own labor from the West. As for their claim that they help us become energy independent, the truth is that their product is for the global market, not just the U.S., as witness the fact that Chesapeake Appalachia, LLC, one of the companies involved, has sold its share of leases to a Norwegian company.

    Let?s consider some background: a Republican dominated Congress, inspired by Vice-Pres. Dick Cheney and his Wyoming cowboys, included in the Energy Policy Act of 2005, a clause which granted the oil and natural gas extraction industries exemption from a slew of environmental laws, including the Clean Air Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, and the Emergency Planning and Community Right-to-Know Act, something about which we should now be writing urgent letters to Congress to have reversed.

    Besides its use in Pennsylvania and Ohio, horizontal hydraulic fracturing has been in use for gas extraction in a number of western states, including New Mexico, Colorado, Texas, and Wyoming. The exact composition of the fracking fluid may vary somewhat for different geographical areas and is kept confidential by the drilling companies, the stated justification being that it is proprietary and therefore a trade secret, but much information has been obtained from various sources including the gathering of samples from truck transport leakage on western highways, and from the Material Data Safety Sheets filed with National Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Also, a settlement reached by the State of Pennsylvania, to end litigation against a drilling company provided further identification of 54 of the chemicals in the fluid used there, including diesel fuel containing benzene, ethyl benzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene. Also identified were polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, methanol, formaldehyde, ethylene glycol, glycol ethers, hydrochloric acid, sodium hydroxide, 2-butoxyethanol, ethylhexanol, glutraldehyde, boric acid, monoethanolamine, dazomet, acedicanhydride, isopropyl alcohol, propargyl alcohol, 5-chloro-2methyl-4-isothiazotin-3-one, and sodium bicarbonate. This list was publicized by the Upper Delaware River Valley paper, the River Reporter. All these chemicals affect gastrointestinal and liver function, respiratory function, and skin, eye and sensory organs. Many affect cardiovascular and blood, and brain and nervous systems. Some affect kidney function and immune systems. Many affect child development since they affect people?s endocrine and reproductive systems (endocrine gland changes can cause changes in sexual characteristics, among other things.) Some are actually mutagenic (causing genetic changes) and many are carcinogenic. It must be borne in mind that very tiny quantities of these chemicals can contaminate millions of gallons of drinking water. The effects of many other chemicals in fracking fluid on human health have never even been tested, and many, if not most, cannot be removed from the water supply by any known purification process, whether it?s your household Brita or the huge and very costly chemical treatment plant now under construction in Van Cortlandt Park.

    Most members of the Legislature and Gov. Paterson seem to have been unaware of the EPA 2002 draft report which stated that at the point of injection, nine hydraulic fracturing chemicals violated water quality standards. This statement was edited out before publication. The final report stated that fracturing fluids were likely to remain underground and were likely to be transported by ground water supplies. An earlier Department of Energy report stated that hydraulic fracking fluid contained some of the most toxic substances in existence.

    Our officials have been unaware that in Colorado, New Mexico, Alabama, Ohio, and Pennsylvania, courts and state and local governments have documented 1000 cases of water supply contamination by natural gas fracking operations. These operations have poisoned livestock on ranches and contaminated soil. They are now probably unaware of the contamination of seven private water wells in Bradford, Pennsylvania by gas drilling operations. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, a natural gas drilling operation near Norma Fiorentino?s residence allowed methane gas, the main component of the gas to leak upward into the aquifer that fed Fiorentino?s private well and was probably ignited by a spark from her electrical pump, causing an explosion that sent flying a concrete slab weighing several thousand pounds. Near Cleveland, Ohio, a house exploded presumably from the gas from a nearby fracking operation that seeped into its water supply and entered its household plumbing. In any citizen suits brought against a drilling company to recover damages from incidents like these, the burden of proof would be on the plaintiffs, and that would be a tough challenge when contesting with the high priced corporate lawyers, who tend to use every device to shift blame from their clients to other circumstances.

    The DEC?s Division of Mineral Resources has been preparing an updated Generic Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement, (GEIS) which is expected to be completed this summer, and its conclusions could make possible the granting of permits for natural gas fracking even on public and private land in the Catskill-Delaware Watershed. The Division held preliminary public hearings in several Upstate communities in November and December, 2008. The closest one to New York City was in Loch Sheldrake, out-of-reach to all but a few of the nine million consumers of Catskill-Delaware water. Thus, the DEC shows every indication of bias in favor of granting those permits. When government and natural gas industry officials insist that there are sufficient regulatory safeguards in place to protect water supplies and the environment, that statement is very vague and where such regulations exist, violations of them become just a cost of doing business for the companies concerned whereas the damage done is forever. Unless it can be proven that hydrofracking can be done sustainably, it must be banned, and with the ongoing cuts in the Environmental Protection Fund, the DEC will not even be able to keep the current 19 people it has to inspect and monitor drilling and mining activity and how it impacts the thousands of lakes, streams, and rivers throughout the State.

    There has been a rush by many Upstate economically deprived property owners to grant drilling rights to the many gas drilling service companies, anticipating the generous royalties that will lift them out of their depressed circumstances. Even our Democratic political powers-that-be would like nothing better than an expedient means of meeting the State?s current fiscal requirements, even if it means selling our most vital and strategic interests to corporate entities.

    There is currently a movement afoot to get the Legislature to enact a moratorium on all natural gas drilling in our watersheds. We can only hope that this comes soon, before the issuance of drilling permits for the area by the DEC, and our individual efforts in this regard can aggregate to accomplish this. To anyone who has never written a letter to the Governor or our legislators, now is the time, and also to express yourself on call-in radio shows and to write letters-to-the editors of all the local papers, to create a giant chorus on the urgency of having a government that will do what it is supposed to do to protect the health and wellbeing of the population. Plenty of information is available on the subject of hydrofracking. Just visit the following websites:

    While I was writing this, this was an item on the May 27th Morning Edition of National Public Radio with a lot of interesting information and plenty of comments.

    On Thursday, May 28th, at 7:00 pm, at the Community Church of New York, 40 East 35th Street, there will be a forum on the subject of ?Our Water is at Risk?, sponsored by the Sierra Club?s Atlantic Chapter, Common Cause-New York, Democracy for NYC, Action for Justice, and Save the Mountain. You are urged to attend.