You are here

EPA questions fracking study


ALBANY — Opponents of natural gas hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, said Thursday that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has fired a shot across the bow of the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

In a 26-page response to DEC's proposed environmental review of hydfrofracking, EPA Regional Director Judith Enck proposed dozens of improvements ranging from giving a voice in the review to the state Public Service Commission to the establishment of larger no-drilling zones around water supplies, and tougher handling of wastewater and potentially radioactive drilling waste.

Enck even questioned whether DEC, which has been dealing with staff cuts in recent years, is ready to oversee natural gas drilling.

"It is not made clear how DEC plans to do this, given the current state of the economy," according to the EPA response. The EPA's opinion was among more than 40,000 comments that DEC received by Wednesday midnight's deadline for reaction to a kind of environmental road map — called a draft generic environmental impact state — for hydrofracking that DEC released in September.

Enck, a former high-ranking environmental official in the office of former governors Eliot Spitzer and David Patterson, was not available for comment. DEC did not offer any reaction to her report other than to cite an official statement by its Commissioner Joe Martens that all comments will be carefully considered.

Hydrofracking relies on a high-pressure blend of water, chemicals and sand to break up gas-bearing rock formations deep underground. Since the state first started its review in 2009, the issue has become bitterly divisive.

Opponents claim the process, which is being used in Pennsylvania and other states, threatens water and air quality, while the industry insists that it is safe.

"EPA has identified significant flaws in the state's fracking proposals, particularly inadequate plans to treat hazardous wastewater, questions about unsafe levels of radiation in fracking waste, and the absence of any consideration of the environmental impacts of the infrastructure associated with fracking, such as pipelines and compressor stations," said a statement issued by a coalition of hydrofracking opponents including Catskill Mountainkeeper, Citizens Campaign for the Environment, Environmental Advocates of New York, Natural Resources Defense Council and others.

PSC spokeswoman Anne Dalton declined comment on EPA's suggestion that the commission become part of DEC's environmental review. The PSC would be responsible for regulating the pipelines that would transport natural gas from the wells to markets elsewhere.

The Independent Gas Association of New York, which represents the gas drilling industry and has been urging the state to being issuing drilling permits this year, also declined comment on the EPA report.

The EPA's response also:

Recommended that DEC study recent reports that linked hydrofracking in the United Kingdom to potentially induced earthquakes;

Told DEC that, based on test results in Pennsylvania, naturally occurring radioactive materials unearthed during drilling can be more potent than DEC was claiming;

Asserted that EPA, not the DEC, has the authority to authorize the "pre-treatment" of drilling wastewater prior to it being brought to authorized municipal wastewater treatment plants for disposal;

Urged DEC to reconsider allowing water that comes back up from hydrofracking, which contains natural salts, from being allowed to be spread on roadways during the winter for traction;

Urged that landowners, not drilling companies, pick out companies to test well water at drillers' expense prior to drilling to "remove any concerns about the water testing results being biased."

Another hydrofracking opponent, Walter Hang of Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting, said EPA's "public health protection proposals differ vastly from" those of DEC.

EPA, he noted, has proposed a one-mile buffer zone around selected water supply wells; DEC's proposed buffer is 150 feet.

EPA issued this statement: "Those comments were specific to natural gas extraction activities in New York. EPA and the (Obama) administration have been clear that we believe natural gas has a central role to play in our energy future, and we continue to take steps to ensure that as we leverage this important resource it takes place safely and responsibly."

Read more: