Drilling Deep Into Controversy

Jessica Lee Oct 29, 2009

For more than a year, a swelling movement of landowners, politicians, individuals and environmental organizations has been pressuring New York State to strongly regulate — or even ban — a natural gas drilling process that could wreak havoc on the environment.

Opposing them are big energy companies throwing around hundreds of millions of dollars to snap up land leases in the state so they can tap huge natural gas reserves thousands of feet underground.

At stake are freshwater sources for millions of people in Philadelphia, New York and the countryside, as well as watersheds that replenish environmental treasures from the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence River to the Delaware River and Chesapeake Bay.

The issue has now come to a head. After the state released a much-awaited environmental impact statement, opponents blasted it as incomplete and said it was unacceptable that only 60 days were allotted for public comment.

On Sept. 30, the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC ) issued an 809-page draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement On The Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program (SGEIS). The DEC states it is offering a plan to regulate drilling activities that would minimize environmental and public health risks. It would streamline the process of allowing companies to apply for a drilling permit to the DEC without completing an environmental impact statement for each well site.

Four public meetings are scheduled across the state, and the deadline for public comment on the report is Nov. 30, but many New Yorkers are already speaking out.

“The plan for industrial gas drilling in New York State is an irresponsible plan, because it is not a plan at all,” said Lisa Wright, a member of Shaleshock Citizens Action Alliance, a group organizing Finger Lakes residents against shale drilling.

The battle is over drilling in shale formations laid down hundreds of millions of years ago and which now cover most of New York State. Proponents of drilling say natural gas in the Marcellus and Utica shale formations, which plunge down to 7,000 feet beneath the earth and stretch from New York to Tennessee, could help the United States achieve energy independence. Opponents say given the record of shale drilling in other states, the risks to the environment and public health are far too great for what is still a dirty fossil fuel.

Because the natural gas is trapped in tiny bubbles in the shale, energy companies use explosives and a technique called hydraulic fracturing or “fracking.” Fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemical concoctions and sand down a well under high pressure to crack the shale and release the gas.

The fracking fluid has drawn the ire of environmental and public health advocates. More than 260 chemicals are known to be used — many of them known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters — while other chemicals are guarded by drilling companies as “trade secrets.”

The main concerns are air and water pollution, massive volumes of water required, the pumping of chemicals that have been shown to spread nearly 30 miles underground, the leaking of methane and other chemicals into residential water sources, onsite storage of waste fluids and chemicals, and disposal of used fracking fluid that resurface with additional chemicals, including metals, salts, bacteria and naturally occurring radioactive materials.

New York City residents and organizations have mobilized to fight for a drilling ban in the Catskill/Delaware Watersheds, which are the source of 90 percent of the 1.3 billion gallons of water used daily by nine million residents in the city and upstate. The city and state have spent billions of dollars over the years to preserve some 144,000 acres of land and build reservoirs and tunnels to funnel potable, unfiltered water downstate. According to the SGEIS, 1,077 square miles — or approximately 70 percent of the watershed — could be open to natural gas drilling permits. The Marcellus and Utica shale jut under the western Catskill Mountains.

“The SGEIS takes a disappointing and reckless position on the protection of the Catskill/Delaware watershed,” said Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer in a statement at the City Council Environmental Protection Committee hearing Oct. 23. Stringer lambasted the DEC for even contemplating “the potential exposure of New York City’s unfiltered water supply to benzene, formaldehyde … and hundreds of other endocrine disrupters and carcinogenic chemicals used for hydraulic fracturing.”

Last February, Stringer’s office issued the report, “Uncalculated Risk: How Plans to Drill for Gas in Upstate New York Could Threaten New York City’s Water System.”

S.M. VIDAURRILocal groups have expressed anger. “The only reason to drill is for money,” said Joseph Levine, cofounder and chairman of NYH20, at the Oct. 23 City Council hearing. “It’s fundamentally ridiculous to contemplate destruction of our natural environment and precious water resources for what will amount to only a few years of interim energy supply.”

Also at the hearing, James Simpson, staff attorney for Riverkeeper’s Watershed Program, said the SGEIS “contains no real analysis of the cumulative impacts associated with industrial gas drilling,” and could result in “death by a thousand cuts” to the environment.

Some groups are looking to the federal government for part of the solution.

Energy companies are allowed to keep secret the chemicals used in fracking under the 2005 Energy Policy Act, which exempts them from the reporting requirements in the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. The Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act, which has been introduced in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, would bring oversight to the industry (S. 1215/H.R. 2766).

“This bill is crucial in reigning in an ‘industry gone wild,’’ said Tracy Carluccio, the deputy director for the Delaware Riverkeeper Network. The legislation is essential if “we are going to protect water resources and not just write them off as a lost cause sacrificed to gas companies’ bottom line.”

A long list of accidents, explosions, water and air pollution and other health complaints have been documented in eight other states where shale fracking is already occurring.

This has many New Yorkers concerned. Last year, a Pro-Publica investigation found that, “the DEC had told state legislators that hydraulic fracturing was safe, even though the agency had not studied or discussed the sometimes dangerous chemicals that it uses and that later wind up in its waste.”

Legislators passed a bill to speed up the permitting process for an expected influx of Marcellus shale drilling permit applications. It was estimated economic activity could generate $1 billion in state revenue. After public outcry, the same day Gov. David Paterson signed the bill July 23, 2008, he ordered the DEC to begin to draft an environmental impact statement.

In the latest twist, Chesapeake Energy Corp., one of the nation’s top natural gas producers and the largest leaseholder in Marcellus shale, announced Oct. 27 that it would not seek to drill in the New York City watershed.

“How could any one well be so profitable that it would be worth damaging the New York City water system?” Chesapeake CEO Aubrey McClendon told The New York Times.

The move by Chesapeake, however, promises no permanent protections. Councilmember James Gennaro (D-Queens) introduced Resolution 1850-A last March to encourage the state to ban drilling in the city’s watershed. A proposed bill in the New York State Legislature (A8748/S6244) would create a five-mile buffer zone around the city’s watershed, as well as require drilling to not contaminate drinking water wells.

New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which is charged with protecting and managing the city’s drinking water supply, has hired Hazen and Sawyer, a New York City-based environmental engineering firm, to assess the risks to the city’s water supply associated with horizontal drilling and fracking. The final report is expected to be released at the end of the year, thus DEP proposed an extension to the SGEIS public comment period until January. Other groups are also requesting a deadline extension.

DEP Deputy Commissioner Steve Lawitts pointed to the conflicting state goals during a presentation at the Oct. 23 City Council hearing. Lawitts noted that in July 2007, the city, state and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency reached an agreement on a “filtration avoidance determination,” which established a series of protective measures to keep the city’s water supply unfiltered.

“Natural gas drilling without robust protections in place go against the direction we have been moving in the last 12 years [to protect the water supply],” Lawitts said.

If city water were to be contaminated by natural gas drilling, DEP estimates that it would cost at least $10 billion to build a filtration plant, with annual operation costs of $300 million. This, Lawitts said, could mean a 30 percent increase in water and sewage system fees for city residents. Some doubt that standard filtration could properly process fracking chemicals.

Just because Chesapeake pulled out of the Catskill Mountains, doesn’t mean that the fight is over. Many observers express concern that New York’s water supply may be protected at the expense of everyone and everything else. The DEC notes that the entire state is a watershed, and a deal to protect New York City’s water supply would protect only two of 14 watersheds in the state.

“If drilling is unsafe for New York City’s water supply, it is unsafe for anyone’s water supply,” Wright write.

Robert Jereski, a founding co-coordinator of New York Climate Action Group, says that New York City officials should stand up for protecting water for residents statewide.

“I stand in solidarity both with upstate communities currently under threat from drilling and New York City residents who are becoming inextricably linked to each others’ quality of life by sharing food sources, breathing the same air, enjoying the same recreational areas and developing more symbiotic economies,” Jereski said.

City Councilmember and former mayoral candidate Tony Avella (D-Queens) agrees. On Sept. 30 he introduced Resolution 2191, which urges New York City to support a ban on the drilling practice statewide.

New Yorkers will get a chance to express their opinions Nov. 10 when the DEC holds a public hearing on the SGEIS in downtown Manhattan at Stuyvesant High School, 345 Chambers Street, starting at 7pm.

Sunset Park resident Alice Joyce, with the group Safe Water Movement, is planning to testify at the hearing. “The imminent devastation of the state’s resources is on a magnitude that is almost impossible to comprehend: and for what — to fill the pockets of the CEOs of the energy companies.”

Jaisal Noor provided additional reporting for this article.


1. Water Use: According to New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) “2.4 million to 7.8 million gallons of water may be used for a multi-stage hydraulic fracturing procedure,” which would either be pumped from sources nearby or delivered by truck. New York State estimates that fracking could use “28 million gallons per day” from the Susquehanna River alone.

2. Those Frackin’ Chemicals: Using the “Halliburton loophole” in the 2005 Energy Policy Act, drilling companies have refused to release information on chemicals used in fracking because they are “trade secrets.” The SGEIS listed more than 260 chemicals used in fracking, many of which are known carcinogens and endocrine disrupters that can endanger animals and humans at very low levels. In the last six years, hydraulic fracturing has been linked to more than 1,000 documented incidents of water contamination in the western United States. These chemicals are stored on site, leading to other associated risks such as explosions.

3. Natural Gas Migration: Fracking loosens natural gas deposits and leads to leaks into surface and groundwater. In a handful of instances, homes have been blown up by methane escaping through well water, resulting in three deaths in one case.

4. Disposing of Wastewater: Wastewater from Marcellus shale wells will contain not only the “briny” water produced by the rock layers, but also heavy metals such as lead, arsenic and barium and fracking chemicals. This fluid is considered hazardous and must be treated at a local treatment plant. Most plants in New York State say they cannot handle both the concentration of salts and chemicals present and the quantity of waste. Fracking in Pennsylvania produces nine million gallons of wastewater a day. The state’s first plant to treat “Total Dissolved Solids” in the wastewater won’t be operational before 2013 and will be able to handle less than 5 percent of the current waste stream. Currently wastewater is dumped in waterways or treated in sewage plants unable to process the chemicals.

5. Fragmenting the Landscape: A single site can require dozens of acres for the drilling pad, equipment and chemical storage, waste pits, pipelines and access roads. Many wells in one area could fragment wildlife corridors and agricultural areas, and lead to an increase in soil erosion and flooding, and provide pathways for invasive plant species.


1. Endocrine Disrupters: These are man-made chemicals that mimic hormones or block hormones and disrupt the body’s normal function, even in very low concentrations. They have been linked to infertility, ADHD, autism, diabetes, thyroid disorders, and childhood and adult cancers.

2. Just Irritations or Chronic Illness?: Most fracking chemicals can cause skin, eye and respiratory irritations, but over time can lead to gastrointestinal problems, chronic headaches, brain and nervous system disorders and respiratory disfunction. Others are linked to immunity disorders such as Lupus.

3. Air Quality: Drilling may produce airborne pollutants such as arsenic, mercury, methane, benzene, toluene, nitrous oxides, hydrogen sulfide, volatile organic chemicals, radioactive materials, ozone and excessive diesel exhaust. This pollution contributes to asthma as well as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Sue Smith-Heavenrich is a reporter in the Finger Lakes region and blogs at

Nov. 10 — New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC ) is hosting a hearing Tuesday, Nov. 10, at 7 pm. Stuyvesant High School, 345 Chambers Street, Manhattan.

Nov. 30 — The public can comment on the DEC ’s draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement online to Nov. 30.

Dec. 9 — The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC ) may put the application for natural gas wells and water withdrawal on its Dec. 9 agenda. Members of the public are encouraged to send DRBC comments and attend the meeting. For more info:;

Call on U.S. senators and representatives to support the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals (FRAC) Act, which would amend the Safe Drinking Water Act to give the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency authority over the hydraulic fracturing process of natural gas extraction. It would also force the industry to release the list of chemicals that it deems “trade secrets.” (S. 1215/H.R. 2766)

Urge New York City Council to support Resolution 2191 calling for the state to prohibit hydraulic fracturing combined with horizontal drilling for the extraction of natural gas within the boundaries of New York State. Resolution 2091 urges the U.S. Congress to pass the FRAC Act and for the EPA to apply stringent regulations to protect drinking water sources from contamination by hydraulic fracturing.

Contact New York State Legislature to support A8745/S6244, which would amend the environmental conservation law to ensure that the exploitation of shale natural gas resources is conducted in a manner consistent with the state’s commitment to sustainability and with other state economic development, energy and environmental policies.

For more information, click here to read Arun Gupta’s piece in this issue of The Indypendent.

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