No fracking way! C.B. 2 forum warns about water

By Albert Amateau

Worried about an imminent threat to the Catskill/Delaware watershed, which supplies New York City with 90 percent of its water, Community Board 2 last week voted unanimously to demand a ban on drilling for natural gas in New York State.

Improved technology involving horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing, along with rising gas prices, have spurred interest in drilling for natural gas from the Marcellus shale formation deep beneath four counties in the Upstate New York watershed.

Hydraulic fracturing requires huge volumes of water laced with sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals. In fact, at least 247 chemicals are used in the process — commonly known as “fracking” — 90 percent of them toxic, according to environmental experts. But gas exploration companies have refused to divulge the exact list of chemicals and their concentration in the fracking fluid, saying the information is proprietary — a trade secret.

“We can’t let the bad economy and people wanting to cash in on natural gas provoke wholesale drilling,” said Queens Councilmember James Gennaro at a March 18 forum held by the C.B. 2 Environmental Committee at Judson Church. “We can’t be the generation that loses New York City’s water supply to the lure of natural gas,” said Gennaro, who is a trained geologist.

Gennaro is the sponsor of City Council legislation calling on the state Legislature, the state Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Paterson to prohibit drilling for natural gas within the watershed’s boundaries in Delaware, Greene, Ulster and Sullivan Counties.

Local Councilmembers Alan Gerson and Rosie Mendez have gone on record supporting the legislation, Gennaro said.

Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer has called for a moratorium on drilling permits throughout the state, as well as a ban on drilling within the watershed that serves the city.

Council Speaker Christine Quinn has not taken a position yet on the city legislation, but her legislative aide Siobhan Watson, told the March 18 forum that Quinn was “keenly aware of the issue, and she’s very supportive.”

The forum, co-sponsored by NY-H2O, a watershed advocacy group, heard from a panel, including, in addition to Gennaro, environmental experts from Earthjustice, Riverkeeper and NY-H2O, as well as Dr. Stephen Corson, policy analyst for Stringer; and Jared Chasnow, legislative aide to state Senator Tom Duane.

According to a report by Corson, “Uncalculated Risk,” drilling for natural gas could begin this year, after the state Department of Environmental Conservation completes a supplemental generic environmental impact statement, or S.G.E.I.S., on gas wells using the fracking process. The S.G.E.I.S relates to legislation that New York State passed last year to allow wells to be drilled closer together. State Assemblymember Deborah Glick, who voted against that bill last year, supports Gennaro’s legislation to ban gas drilling in the watershed.

Despite the expected impact of gas wells using hydraulic fracturing on the city watershed, D.E.C. conducted scoping sessions for the S.G.E.I.S in six Upstate counties in November and December of last year but none in New York City. Gennaro and Duane protested the omission, but D.E.C. Commissioner Pete Grannis said in a November letter that opponents would have a chance to comment on the issue after the S.G.E.I.S. comes out in August.

Experts at the Judson forum said the process, pioneered by Halliburton in 1949, is a danger to the water supply. Not all the chemical-laden water is recoverable; 20 to 40 percent stays in the ground and could migrate to ground-water aquifers. Recovered wastewater stored in pits and tanks at the surface could also leak into the earth.

It takes between 3 million and 5 million gallons of water pumped at high pressure into the shale formation to fracture it and release the methane gas held in the rock. Each well could be hydro-fractured several times.

Moreover, each well must be surrounded by 3-to-5 acres of cleared land and must be served by roads to supply chemical-laden water and drilling material.

“It’s a public-health crisis and it would industrialize the landscape,” said Joe Levine, a founder of NY-H2O, who spoke at the forum.

Government safeguards have been eroding. In 2005, the oil and gas industry won exemptions from the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Right-to-Know Act and the Superfund Act. The federal Environmental Protection Administration reported at the time that hydro-fracking does not pose a threat to drinking-water supplies. However, the E.P.A.’s report took fire from independent researchers and government whistleblowers, according to a white paper sponsored by Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a group located in northeast Pennsylvania, above the same Marcellus shale formation that underlies New York City’s watershed.

Levine said some residents of Damascus have reported being able to “flare” their drinking water by striking a match at the surface of water in a glass, and igniting a flame in the methane gas rising from the water.

“We’ve uncovered 24 examples in nine states of explosions from wells and spills and leaks of contaminated water,” he added, noting that many incidents have occurred in Wyoming and Utah, where drilling wells into shale for natural gas has been a common practice in recent years.

“We can’t repeat the same mistakes that we made out West,” Deborah Goldberg, managing attorney for the northeast region of Earthjustice, told the March 18 Village forum. Goldberg has been speaking recently with New York State environmental officials about the need to regulate natural gas exploration.

“What we’ve heard from them so far has not been encouraging,” she said. “I don’t expect government to come down on the right side of this issue. They’re still more friendly to industry.”

Because of efforts by New York City and local towns to control development, the Delaware/Catskill watershed is one of the nation’s few water resources exempt from federal filtration-plant requirements, Gennaro noted.

“It’s difficult up there [in the watershed area] to get a permit to pave your driveway,” said Gennaro.

A $3.9 billion filtration plant is currently under construction in the Bronx for the Croton watershed, which supplies 10 percent of the city’s water, Gennaro added. But if environmental problems threaten the Delaware/Catskill system, the federal government would order a filtration plant to be built for that watershed, at a cost of more than $10 billion to city taxpayers, Gennaro said.

The borough president’s report estimated that a Delaware/Catskill filtration plant could cost up to $20 billion.

“The whole notion of filtering out fracking fluids from the water supply is questionable,” Gennaro said. “I don’t think any filtration can do that.”

The chemicals involved include boric acid, theylene glycol, benzene and an undetermined number of other compounds. In undiluted form, they are carcinogens and could cause kidney, liver, heart, blood and brain damage through repeated exposure. Gas exploration companies assert that the chemicals are diluted, but they do not reveal what the concentrations are.

The need for energy and the money to be made from gas wells in the Marcellus shale formation could drive the number of wells in the Delaware/Catskill watershed to 20,000 in the next several years, said experts at the forum.

Although Community Board 2 has endorsed a ban on gas drilling in the entire state, Gennaro’s Council resolution seeks to ban drilling only in the city watershed and other threatened watersheds.

Gennaro said the state should also require drilling companies to fully disclose the chemicals and concentration of fracking fluids. Tracer chemicals should be added to see where unrecovered and spilled fluid winds up, he said.

Members of Community Boards 3, 6 and 7 also attended the March 18 forum, conducted by Brad Hoylman, C.B.2 chairperson. Jason Mansfield, chairperson of the C.B. 2 Environmental Committee, and committee members Sigrid Burton, Makrand Bhoot, Maria Passannante Derr, Mary Johnson, Renee Kaufman and Ed Ma were present, in addition to board members Jo Hamilton, Zella Jones and Shirley Secunda and C.B. 2 public members Ann Arlen, Kevin Tolan, Frieda Bradlow and Ellen Peterson Lewis.