We New Yorkers take our drinking water for granted. We shouldn’t.
The quality of our drinking water is at risk by the contemplated drilling for natural gas in upstate New York’s Marcellus Shale, according to Marian Rose, founding member and president emeritus of the Croton Watershed Clean Water Coalition (“CWCWC”), and Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney of Earthjustice’s northeast office. They detailed potential threats to drinking water before a capacity crowd at the Larchmont-Mamaroneck League of Women Voter’s meeting at Hector’s Restaurant on February 5.
According to the Natural Resources Defense Council (“NRDC”), the Marcellus Shale consists of underground, layered, sedimentary rock originating up to 412 million years ago, spanning approximately 600 miles across western New York, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio and ranging in thickness from a few feet to 250 feet (see map). More than one million acres of the Marcellus Shale is located in the New York City watershed which provides nine million people with drinking water, including residents of Larchmont and Mamaroneck.
Drilling Would Boost Upstate Economy
The natural gas stored within the shale presents a potentially valuable fuel source for gas companies and a much needed source of income for economically challenged upstate property owners who live above the shale. For upstate property owners who live in the cities and suburbs surrounding the shale, drilling represents the promise of reinvigoration to a depressed economy through job creation for people who will support the drilling operations, such as employment at temporary housing established for the drillers, trucking, pipe and hose supply, among other things.
Balancing Economic and Environmental Interests
According to David Currie, former Larchmont resident and current executive director of the Binghamton Regional Sustainability Coalition, upstate needs a boost to the economy, yet a balanced approach is needed regarding the drilling: economic development, but not at the expense of health and community.
Mr. Currie says risk management, cost-benefit analyses relating to health, environment and the existing upstate tourism and agricultural economy and regulatory enforcement represent critical issues which need to be addressed before drilling begins.
For downstate residents, drilling represents a threat to drinking water, nearby nature preserves, upstate university settings and other tourism destinations, with no obvious personal benefits. A balancing act, indeed.
Governor David Paterson, under pressure to find sources of income for upstate landowners and the state’s anemic tax base, has taken steps to streamline the environmental review process that precedes the drilling. New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (“DEC”), according to its website, claims to require a rigorous review process for all would be drillers. Critics disagree.
In an unregulated process know as hydro-fracking, which separates the layered rock to release the natural gas, drillers penetrate a mile or more below ground to extract the gas by using millions of gallons of unrecoverable, highly pressurized water, mixed with sand and varying, undisclosed chemical cocktails derived from among a list of more than 100 chemicals, which include nitrogen, benzene, kerosene and formaldehyde. Once wells are drilled, they can produce natural gas for 40 years running from the source through pipelines that connect to the millennium pipeline which runs from corning to near New York City.
Evaluating the Risks
Environmental conservation groups such as Earthjustice, CWCWC, NRDC and local coalitions continue to evaluate the myriad risks surrounding the gas drilling and extraction process and New York State’s legal framework in place to address this process.
A few of the state regulatory deficiencies cited are as follows: New York has no laws regulating the amount of water used in the extraction process. New York also has no law regulating the disposal methods for the unusable radioactive sludge bi-product resulting from the extraction process. This bi-product includes, so-called, naturally occurring radioactive materials (“norm”), such as radium and radon and heavy metals, such as arsenic, lead and mercury which become unleashed in the extraction process.
In addition, New York also lacks the proper sewage treatment facilities to handle this contaminated bi-product. Where this unregulated waste will go remains an unknown. In addition, there is also to consider the impact of unleashing “norms” into the atmosphere.
The fate of drilling for natural gas in New York hangs in the balance while DEC reviews the current version of the revised supplemental generic environmental impact statement. According to speaker Marian Rose, DEC’s risk analysis examines the effects of extraction from a single well site, not the cumulative effect from drilling all wells across the Marcellus Shale in upstate New York (see map).
Thus, according to Ms. Rose, any finding of no adverse impact by the DEC, would be based upon insufficient information and analysis. Ms. Rose also pointed out that 25% of our watershed consists of forests that filter our water; the contemplated drilling will fragment the forests and destroy the natural beauty New Yorkers treasure and the refuge wildlife call home.
Deborah Goldberg, whose organization is currently addressing the impact of drilling in New York and Pennsylvania, described a dirty laundry list of expensive adverse environmental impacts that have already occurred in Pennsylvania, where drilling has begun without regulatory oversight in place. This includes water contamination from chemicals used in the extraction process, air pollution from truck diesel exhaust and ecosystems killed by invasive species trucked in on the mining equipment, among others.
Ms. Goldberg reinforced the need to consider the cumulative impact of drilling on air quality, water quality, ozone, traffic and noise in the supplementary environmental impact review process. Ms. Goldberg also articulated the need for careful preventative intervention at the state level with formal regulations (more than the existing permitting process), since federal environmental laws do not cover the hydro-fracking process. According to Ms. Goldberg, DEC is not considering alternative methods of gas extraction.
For concerned citizens who wish to remain engaged in the process, Deborah Goldberg recommends asking our elected state representatives to establish in legislation relating to this drilling, the right to bring a citizen’s enforcement action. Ms. Goldberg also recommends asking our U.S. representatives to establish a citizen’s hotline at the environmental protection agency office for our region (#2), as has been done elsewhere, to report environmental and human health hazards resulting from the drilling. These steps would give all citizens more personal control over the long-term protection of our state’s natural resources.
Elisabeth N. Radow is chair of Natural Resources Committee of the League Of Women Voters of Larchmont-Mamaroneck and organizer and moderator of the February 5th event.