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Ithacans Voice Drilling Concerns


A public hearing concerning regulatory measures for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for the local Marcellus Shale natural gas resource was held at the State Theater in Ithaca last night, the topic of discussion: the draft of the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS). While local Ithacans criticized both the proposed plan as well as the drilling in general, Department for Environmental Conservation (DEC), the government agency responsible for the draft, would only listen to critiques of the document itself.

Prior to the hearing, concerned citizens of the area held a rally in the commons petitioning Gov. Paterson (D-N.Y.) to prohibit horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing at least until the Environmental Protection Agency study on water contamination found both practices to be safe.

Although tapping into Upstate New York’s resources to drill for natural gas is not a new phenomenon, previously only vertical drilling has been allowed. Horizontal drilling involves drilling 2,000 to 5,000 feet deep into the Marcellus Shale, and then drilling for as much as one mile horizontally. The hydraulic fracturing component includes blasting three to five million gallons of a mixture of water, chemicals and sand into the wells to fracture the shale and release the gas.What the frack?: Ithacans gather on the Commons yesterday to protest the potential use of a natural gas-drilling technique called hydrofracking, which they said would contaminate ground water.What the frack?: Ithacans gather on the Commons yesterday to protest the potential use of a natural gas-drilling technique called hydrofracking, which they said would contaminate ground water.

The hot debate involving such drilling contrasts the benefit of greater yields-per-well of natural gas against the potential contamination of the local water supply due to the toxic chemicals and lack of adequate environmental research and regulation. Natural gas, which burns cleaner than fossil fuels, still emits the greenhouse gasses methane and carbon dioxide.

While the issue was brought to the attention of the local community last night, it has long been an issue with which the State of New York has been grappling. Previously, the governor denied horizontal hydraulic fracturing permits to gas companies until the update of the 1992 Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a review of the potential impacts of oil and gas drilling and how they are mitigated. Since the natural gas drilling is exempt from regulations in the Clean Air and Clean Water Act, regulation for natural gas is largely dependant on the Department of Environmental Conservation.

Currently on the table for public comment is a draft of the supplement for the GEIS, which was released on Sept. 31 and directly addresses horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing. Originally, the DEC was not going to hold any hearings for the public’s response to the draft, but later agreed to hold hearings and extend the public comment period from 30 to 60 days.

“They did finally agree to schedule public hearings, it was basically public pressure that led to that,” said Edward Marx, Tompkins County Commissioner of Planning and Public Works who spoke at the hearing last night.

Tompkins County, however, was left out. “There were four hearings around the state of New York and none in Tompkins County so we thought we’d set one up on our own,” said Martha Roberston, a legislator under the Tompkins County Council of Government.

The hearing provided a forum to educate concerned citizens and allow them to voice their opinions of the SGEIS draft. Those who wished to speak were allotted no more than 3 minutes to convey their message. The whole hearing was transcribed and a copy will be sent to the DEC for consideration, along with written comments from attendees. “It will be given the same weight as if it were an official hearing,” Robertson said.

Although members of the community were happy that such a platform was organized, the discussion was limited to comments on ways to amend regulations for horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the SGEIS draft — not to oppose it entirely.

Walter Hang, from Toxics Targeting an organization opposed to such drilling, commented “the whole premise of the SGEIS is fundamentally flawed, it’s based on the fact that the existing regulations were fine for protecting public health.”

Hang cited numerous examples of oil and gas spills, “there was a gas release in Freedom New York that got into a fracture and traveled 8000 feet and blasted 12 people out of their homes … the regulations need to be revised and that’s not provided for by the SGEIS, that’s why we’re calling on the governor to withdraw it and revise it in order to protect the public from these drilling hazards.”

Many county legislature officials further commented on the inadequacy of the proposed SGEIS. The top concern was the safety of the New York water supply and the lack of the necessary enforcing regulation.

Dominic Frongillo ‘05, council member for the town of Carolina observed that under the proposed SGEIS companies would not have to disclose the chemicals —that are known to include carcinogens and other toxic compounds — used in hydraulic fracturing. Furthermore, inspection and water testing was not made mandatory at every well site.

The Mayor of Ithaca, Caroline Peterson commented that the local waste water plant would be unable to adequately treat the radioactive waste water from hydraulic fracturing.

Many of the regulations in the GEIS draft suggest prudent policies by gas companies but do not mandate them. Ken Zeserson, planning board of Ulysses, noted that one proposed solution to the waste from the drilling was to spread it on local roads, “we have considered it and radioactive road salt is a bad idea,” he joked. He also commented on the fact that counties have virutally no power to resist gas companies or impose regulations on them.

“Considerations of counties at the local level are not taken into account,” said Jennifer Dotson (I-1st), common council for the City of Ithaca. “Normally there are involved agencies one would think the local communities in a township would be considered involved agencies and would get some say but we’re not even notified … we are only notified of the first permit [leasing the land for gas drilling] that goes through.”

The public comment period will last until Dec. 31. The DEC will then respond to the comments and publish the final GEIS. This will be the last word on regulations concerning horizontal drilling and hydrualic fracturing in New York with the exception of intervention by the New York State government.