You are here

Drill down, to the truth


One of the natural gas industry's selling points on why New Yorkers should welcome drilling of the vast Marcellus Shale is that the method of choice, hydraulic fracturing, has never contaminated a drinking well or water supply, or caused any environmental mishap in this state.

Never. That's a pretty definitive word, allowing no exceptions. But in this case, it may require an asterisk. Or a bunch of them.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has so far supported the industry's assertion. But now comes Walter Hang of Ithaca, a researcher who runs a company that tracks and maps environmental problems. He's also an anti-drilling activist.

Mr. Hang says that the DEC's records are missing some 20 years worth of county health department reports on water and gas problems in three counties in western New York -- Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua. Those included 135 oil and natural gas incidents in Chautauqua County alone, Mr. Hang says. In some instances, he says, water was contaminated with brine. In others, drinking water could be ignited.

Whether these incidents were tied to hydraulic fracturing -- a process by which a mix of water and chemicals is injected into deep rock, causing it to crack and release trapped gas -- is not yet known. The DEC says only that it is looking into Mr. Hang's correspondence.

That's certainly better than not looking into these issues, which may have been the case all these years. It turns out that Mr. Hang is not the first person to sound the alarm; this may merely be the first time DEC heard it.

The records Mr. Hang produced, for example, show that six years ago, a Chautauqua County Health Department water resource specialist wrote that his agency had "investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil- and gas-drilling activities."

The specialist, Bill Boria, said there were "suspected ground water contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling activities and hydrofracturing."

And, he added, the reported complaints "are probably just a fraction of actual problems that occurred."

That would be a far cry from never.

There are really two issues here.

First, DEC needs to determine whether gas drilling -- particularly the hydraulic fracturing method that the industry wants to use to tap the gas-rich Marcellus Shale -- has contaminated wells or water supplies in New York, or caused any environmental problem here. If "never" is actually "sometimes," it clearly has more work to do persuading the public that drilling on such a large scale would be safe.

And second, the agency that's supposed to be monitoring New York's environment, and the natural gas industry, needs to explain why reports of environmental problems in three counties over two decades come as a surprise.

The issue:

Reports of gas drilling problems surface after assurances that the industry's record is clean.

The Stakes:

Where drinking water supplies are involved, there isn't much margin for error.

To comment:, or at