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Pipelines, loopholes at center of fight over fossil fuels in Tompkins


ITHACA, NY - Hydrofracking may be prohibited in New York State, but activists say loopholes in the ban and a growing network of gas pipelines and other infrastructure still threaten the environment in Tompkins County.

Walter Hang, of the environmental watchdog company Toxics Targeting, recently implored a veritable army of "fractivists" to journey to Albany and protest at Governor Andrew Cuomo's "State of the State" address.

The focus of this protest was the Constitution Pipeline, a proposed natural gas pipeline that would carry fuel from Pennsylvania through several New York Counties. The Constitution Pipeline wouldn't run through Tompkins County, but is symbolic of the greater battle over fossil fuel infrastructure throughout New York.

It's also related to similar proposed projects like the West Dryden Pipeline, which has already been the subject of significant debate.

Concerns are being raised about the safety of these pipelines. From Department of Environmental Conservation data, Hang compiled a list of 114 pipeline incidents - leaks, spills, ruptures, explosions and other accidents that he says resulted in contamination of nearby waters, damage to the environment and even fatalities. These incidents date back as far as the late 1980s.

Due to the laws governing water quality in New York State, the activists are hoping to prevent the pipeline on the grounds that it would pose a significant risk of water contamination, which Hang says sometimes is not cleaned up properly.

Beyond the safety issues, Hang says there's another reason for fighting the pipeline. "If we succeed," he said, "we will completely change the way that New York prepares to get rid of fossil fuels." He further noted that the state had been "shockingly ineffective" at actually implementing any sorts of alternative energy programs.

According to Hang, only 4.3 percent of all energy in state is produced by alternative sources.

Fracking by any other name

The heated battle over hydraulic fracking seemed to draw to a close with Governor Cuomo's prohibition on the practice in December 2014. However, as Hang is fond of saying, "The devil's in the details."

New York's ban on fracking prohibits any operation that would use of over 300,000 gallons of water for fracking. It doesn't, however, say anything about the use of gelled propane, one of several technologies that have been proposed as alternatives to hydrofracking.

A project is currently progressing in the town of Barton in Tioga County, and according to a WBNG Binghamptom report, it is seeing a great deal of support. A similar proposal was also advanced in the town of Candor. Both towns are just 30 minutes south of Ithaca.

Gelled propane produces less flowback of contaminated water, according to Hang, but an Environmental Impact Statement released last year by the DEC determined that "waterless fracking methods would not eliminate the public hazards" of fracking.

The economic picture in Tompkins County is different from that in many of its neighboring counties, which may make it a less likely target for would-be fracking operations. However, between constant protests at the Seneca Lake gas storage facility, the divide over the West Dryden Pipeline, and the potential for new fracking operations just 30 minutes from Ithaca, a fight over fossil fuel infrastructure seems unavoidable.