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Drilling opponents, supporters butt heads at EPA Forum


Meeting draws 900 to downtown Binghamton

By Jon Campbell

BINGHAMTON -- About 900 stakeholders and public officials -- a far cry from the 8,000 originally estimated -- came to downtown Binghamton Monday for a daylong meeting that often became a showcase for the controversial natural gas drilling debate.

Two-hundred people got the chance to speak during the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's meeting, which was organized to gather input on the scope of a multi-million-dollar study of hydraulic fracturing.

Those at the meeting cheered and groaned as public officials and stakeholders spoke about their concerns or support for hydrofracking, a controversial drilling technique in which a mix of water, sand and chemicals is blasted deep underground to break up rock structures and release natural gas.

U.S. Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-Hurley, was first at the microphone. He asked the agency to take over regulation of the practice and urged a comprehensive approach to the study, which is supposed to look at the potential effects of hydrofracking on groundwater.

Hinchey, the sponsor of a federal bill that would require natural gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in the drilling process, called hydrofracking an "unconventional, harm-causing drilling technique." His speech lasted about eight minutes longer than the two-minute time limit.

"The results of this study will guide the federal government's policies, and perhaps, governments abroad," said Hinchey, who was the only non-EPA speaker to speak from the stage. "This study needs to be comprehensive, and it has to look at all of the different ways drinking water supplies, and non-drinking water supplies, can be impacted."

Several speakers touted a 2004 EPA study that found the fracking process to be safe. Critics say the study was wrought with political influence and have panned the results.

"There are almost 14,000 producing wells in New York state, many of which have been hydrofracked," said Brad Gill, president of the Independent Oil & Gas Association of New York. "Despite claims to the contrary, there hasn't been one case of groundwater being contaminated by the hydraulic fracturing process."

Speakers were urged to keep their comments centered on the scope of the EPA's study, although most took the opportunity to express their concern or support for natural gas drilling.

"High-volume hydraulic fracturing builds wealth, saves jobs and gives hope," said Aaron Price, the filmmaker behind the pro-drilling documentary "Gas Odyssey."

Others applauded the EPA's recent decision to ask gas companies for full disclosure of the chemicals used in the process.

"We need to know about the types of chemicals that are used and the effects of chemicals, not just individually but when you put them all together," said Katherine Nadeau, a program director for Environmental Advocates of New York.

While the afternoon session was split between those for and against hydrofracking, the evening session leaned toward the latter.

Filmmaker Josh Fox received a loud ovation as he approached the podium during the evening session. Fox produced "Gasland," an anti-fracking documentary that aired on HBO.

"My most ardent recommendation is that we stop this process now," Fox said. "People are suffering across the country and cannot wait any longer."

Victoria Switzer, a Dimock, Pa., resident whose water well was ruined by Cabot Oil and Gas, echoed Fox's call.

"EPA, do your job," said Switzer. "EPA must order a cessation of drilling activity in the Marcellus until an investigation is ordered and completed."

A few people heckled Vestal Gas Coalition member Thomas Gorman as he delivered his testimony, with one woman saying he was "ridiculous" when he defended the chemical solution used in the process.

"I know it can be done in an entirely safe manner, and I say that because I visited a well in Pennsylvania and saw the best industry practices," Gorman said. "I urge those who mock me to visit a well site instead of coming out here and shelling out garbled nonsense."

The meeting was largely civil, though some audience members grew testy when speakers went over the two-minute time limit, which was displayed on a large onstage screen. Some began yelling "two minutes" and "time's up" as the clock clicked down, including during Hinchey's opening speech.

Before the hearing began, a few hundred protesters on both sides of the natural gas drilling debate made their voices heard on Washington Street in front of the theater. Opposing rallies were restricted to barricaded areas on opposite ends of the street.

Emotions were high, but Binghamton police -- which provided 12 officers and two supervisors at a cost of about $13,000 to the EPA -- reported no issues.

Concerns about potential rallies led in part to the moving and subsequent postponement of the meeting. It was originally scheduled for Aug. 12 at Binghamton University, but was moved to Syracuse's Oncenter Complex three days before it was set to take place after the EPA and BU couldn't come to an agreement on security and service costs for the meeting. University officials estimated the meeting could attract up to 8,000 to the BU campus.

The meeting was postponed the next day, after Onondaga County officials said they could not come up with a security plan on short notice.

About 1,600 people have registered to attend the meeting, which was split into four sessions -- two each on Monday and Wednesday.

Others who spoke included Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson, Broome County Attorney Joseph Sluzar, and Broome County Executive Barbara J. Fiala.

"It is our hope the EPA is not going to study the entire natural gas development cycle," Fiala said. "Otherwise, the study will lack focus, it will not be timely, and EPA will infringe on the rights of the states to regulate this industry."

High-volume hydrofracking is on hold in New York as the state Department of Environmental Conservation updates its policies and regulations.

Additional Facts
What's next?
The EPA's public meeting on its hydraulic fracturing study will conclude Wednesday with a pair of four-hour sessions. The first will run from noon to 4 p.m., with the second running from 6 p.m. to 10 p.m. About 100 people will be able to speak at each session. Doors will open 90 minutes prior to each session, and parking will be available at the Regency Hotel, City of Binghamton parking lots and NYSEG Stadium.