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Hydrofracking a threat to Southern Tier Ecosystem


Natural Gas Companies' “Hydrofracking” Represents a Dangerous Threat to the New York State Ecosystem, New York City Water Supply

The Marcellus Shale Formation is an immense unit of marine sedimentary rock that spreads over most of northwestern Pennsylvania and across New York State from the far southwest corner in Chautauqua County to the Catskill Mountains, where the great New York City drinking water reservoirs are located. Throughout this massive, ancient geological formation is a tremendous amount of natural gas—all within close proximity to New York City and the rest of the energy hungry eastern seaboard. The energy corporations have been eying it for years, quietly buying up drilling rights throughout the region.

Now, as public pressure builds to curb CO2 emissions, the fossil fuel industry has begun to push natural gas as the “clean energy alternative.” In reality, the extraction of natural gas from the Marcellus Shale of upstate New York promises to be an environmental disaster. It would permanently mar the landscape of a region that depends heavily upon agriculture and tourism. It would create an untenable burden for the public roads and other infrastructure of small, rural communities across New York's Southern tier. And it threatens to contaminate the clean drinking water of the entire southern half of the state, including New York City itself.

To fully appreciate the danger one must first understand how the energy corporations plan to extract this natural gas. Traditional natural gas and oil drilling has involved sinking a vertical well to access a large pool of gas or oil. The unique geological nature of the Marcellus Shale makes this traditional method impossible—within the Marcellus, the natural gas is spread out in tiny pockets and bubbles, far too small to be profitably tapped by a traditional well. Instead the natural gas companies have devised a method they call “hydrofracking.”

In hydrofracking, a hole is drilled straight down into the earth, then horizontally out into the shale. This hole is then violently flooded with between 2 and 9 million gallons of water mixed with sand and toxic chemicals, in order to fracture and corrode the shale and release the small pockets of natural gas. Essentially, a giant underground slurry is created, full of water, sand, pulverized shale, industrial chemicals, the newly released natural gas and also radioactive heavy metals and hydrocarbons, which the water picks up in the process of “fracking” open the well. About half of this slurry remains underground. The other half is brought back to the surface, where the natural gas is separated out from it.

What is left is between one and four and half million gallons of toxic waste, which must be somehow disposed of. Often it is pumped back into a dry well. The current regulations proposed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation allow for it to be stored in open pits, provided they are fenced and posted with warning signs. How, say, migrating birds or other wildlife are supposed to read these signs has not been addressed by the DEC.

Most of the recent advances in hydrofracking have been made by Halliburton, and are protected as “proprietary trade secrets.” This means it is impossible to even know exactly what chemicals are being pumped down into the ground and then pulled back out and trucked away for disposal. Halliburton describes the fracking fluid as “like soap and oil.” Samples from fluid pits in Colorado have revealed more than 200 different chemicals, over 95% of which are carcinogens. But not even the local emergency workers who would be called upon to respond to an accident involving this toxic waste are not allowed to know what is in it. During the Bush/Cheney years, the energy corporations were granted exemptions to the Emergency Planning and Right to Know Acts, along with the Clean Air and Water Acts.

The New York State DEC, and the gas companies themselves, have been astonishingly blas about the potential for a trucking accident involving this waste; given the pure volume of trucks that will be hauling this stuff, it is almost certain that some will crash. A single 2 million gallon well would require 183 tanker truck loads to haul the waste water away. Each well can be fracked up to ten times and they are proposing thousands of potential wells. The roads in the Catskill and Southern Tier regions of New York are rural roads, not particularly well maintained, steep and windy. With thousands of new tractor trailer trips over them, they will deteriorate quickly. Every winter several milk trucks jack knife on these roads. Spilt milk is nothing to cry over. A spilt load of hydrofracking waste would kill wild life and permanently contaminate rivers, streams and the watershed for miles around.

The carbon footprint associated with hydrofracking far offsets any potential benefits derived from burning the relatively cleaner natural gas. In addition to the potentially millions of new tractor trailer trips, diesel generators and drill rigs will run 24 hours a day. Flaring wells produce tremendous amounts of volatile organic compounds and nitrogen oxide, which combine with sunlight to produce ozone. In high density drilling areas in Colorado and Wyoming, rural communities now have higher ozone levels than Los Angeles.

Time is may be running out to prevent this environmental nightmare. Through the end of December, the New York State DEC is taking comments on their draft proposal for regulating hydrofracking. But the DEC's own spill reports, as documented by Ithaca Geologist Walter Hang on his website, already show that existing regulations have failed to potentially protect the public. Hang has drafted a letter to New York Governor David Patterson, requesting that he immediately withdraw the DEC's draft supplemental GEIS and start over with a new document. You do not even need to be a New York State resident to sign the letter. Concerned people can also visit, to learn more about hydrofracking and about the citizen movement rising up to oppose this environmentally destructive practice.