You are here

EPA weighs in on hydrofracking in N.Y.


ALBANY -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is urging New York regulators to take steps to bolster the state's proposed hydraulic fracturing rules, providing a meticulous, line-by-line critique of its 1,500-page report.

Beating a midnight Wednesday deadline to submit comments by less than three hours, the federal agency recommended dozens of ways for the Department of Environmental Conservation to strengthen its hydrofracking proposals. Those suggestions include beefing up a ban on the technique within two major water supplies and taking a closer look at naturally occurring radioactive material found in gas-drilling waste.

But while the EPA's comments included plenty of critiques, the agency took a much gentler tone than in its December 2009 letter to state regulators. Then, the federal regulators blasted a previous draft report for not taking a strong enough look at the impact of a gas-drilling boom.

"New York has demonstrated leadership with this issue and will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country," EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck wrote in a brief cover letter.

Enck, who was appointed to her post in 2009, served in then-Gov. David Paterson's administration when the state put high-volume hydrofracking on hold in 2008 while the DEC undertook a thorough review. The technique, when combined with gas drilling, involves the use of water, sand and chemicals injected deep underground to unlock natural gas from shale formations, such as the Marcellus Shale spanning the Southern Tier and parts of the Catskills.

The EPA's most recent comments left plenty of room for interpretation from lobbying groups on both sides of the contentious gas-drilling debate.

Environmental organizations latched on to 26 pages of EPA suggestions, including a request to further clarify plans to deal with hydrofracking wastewater and to complete further study of the impact of pipelines and other infrastructure associated with gas drilling.

The EPA found "significant flaws in the state's fracking proposals," according to a statement released by the New York Water Rangers, a coalition of environmental groups.

"EPA identifies literally hundreds of critical concerns regarding virtually every aspect of the revised draft (DEC report)," said Walter Hang, an Ithaca activist and owner of environmental database firm Toxics Targeting.

Gas industry trade groups were encouraged by Enck's cover letter, which highlighted natural gas' "key role in our nation's clean energy future."

Many of the EPA's suggestions are sure to draw the industry's ire, however, including the expansion of a ban within 4,000 feet of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds to include all forms of hydrofracking regardless of volume. As it stands, the ban would apply only to hydrofracking operations using less than 300,000 gallons of fluid.

"Some of the (DEC's) recommendations in the watersheds are not justified by the science," said Karen Moreau, executive director of the state Petroleum Council, a lobbying group. "We certainly would not be in favor of adding further restrictions on those property owners who own mineral rights in those watersheds."

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said his agency will thoroughly review the EPA's comments and make changes to his department's hydrofracking proposals as needed.

But high-volume hydrofracking bans in the two watersheds, as well as setbacks and prohibitions within aquifers and other water supplies, were based on firm technical study, he said. The department's current draft recommendations only apply to hydrofracking operations with more than 300,000 gallons; lower volumes are covered under a 1992 environmental impact study.

"I don't think the level of concerns are anywhere near what they are for conventional, low-volume fracking as they are for high-volume hydrofracking," Martens said in an interview.

The EPA's response was just one of an estimated 40,000 received during a four-month comment period, according to the DEC. Before high-volume hydrofracking is given the green light in New York, the DEC has to reply to any substantive issues raised in the comments with a "responsiveness summary," and its report must be finalized.

The review of comments, Martens said, is expected to take "months," but the agency maintains it will be finished sometime in 2012.