Pols and enviros usher in new year, not with bubbly, but chilled H2O

By Albert Amateau

State and city elected officials joined environmental activists on the steps of City Hall on Monday braving subfreezing temperatures to demand that Governor Paterson scrap plans for hydrofracture drilling for natural gas in New York State’s Southern Tier.

Elected officials, who at previous hearings focused their opposition on gas drilling in the six Upstate counties of the New York City watershed, which supplies 90 percent of the city’s drinking water, suggested at the Jan. 4 rally that the radical new drilling method should be banned statewide.

Officials and activists demanded that the state withdraw its draft supplemental generic environmental impact statement for hydrofracture drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation — which lies 3,000 to 6,000 feet beneath the surface of 27 Southern Tier counties — and conduct an entirely new study.

The 800-page study issued in September proposes rules intended to minimize the environmental impact of wells tapping the natural gas in the rock formation.

But Congressmember Jerrold Nadler told the crowd outside City Hall on Monday that the study was “not adequate and the proposed drilling rules would subject the water systems of the entire state to risk.” Nadler acknowledged the potential economic benefit of natural gas drilling to the state, but said, “It must not be done at the risk of the state’s water systems.”

Joe Levine, head of NYH2O, a leading state pure-water advocacy organization, said the environmental impact statement was “the best that money could buy — written by the gas drilling industry.” He recalled that the city Department of Environmental Protection conducted its own study of hydrofracture drilling and submitted a finding in November that the process posed a risk to the city water supply and recommended banning drilling in the watershed.

Assemblymember Deborah Glick said the proposed drilling would impact the entire state and threaten “clean drinking water…the scarcest resource on the planet.”

Assemblymember Brian Kavanagh noted that hydrofracture drilling uses “millions and millions of gallons of water with added chemicals pumped into the rock to release the gas, but it’s not clear where that water goes once it is used.”

Kavanagh also said the state environmental impact statement does not adequately call for information about the chemicals, many of which are toxic in high concentrations, that are used in the process and their impact on the environment.

Assemblymember Richard Gottfried submitted a statement saying that natural gas drilling in the New York watershed would be “colossal madness” and would endanger the water supply of more than half the state.

“There have already been pollution incidents in hydraulic-fracturing operations,” Gottfried said. “At the very least, the draft environmental impact statement must be withdrawn and redone to fully take stock of the danger to life, health and the economy of the region and to fully evaluate alternatives.”

City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, newly elected Councilmember Margaret Chin and Councilmember James Gennaro of Queens also called for the state to start again from square one on a new study.

Quinn noted that the city has spent millions of dollars to acquire land in the watershed counties to insure the purity of the city water supply. Referring to the study’s estimate that hydrofracture drilling would provide more jobs in the state, Quinn said that the jobs would come “when we have to build an $8 million-to-$10 million filtration system when our water is no longer drinkable.”

Gennaro, a geologist by profession, said the hydrofracture drilling is “not your ordinary gas drilling. It’s gas drilling Rambo style.” He said New York State would find itself “in dire trouble if it puts its resources on the table [for sale].” Gennaro said the Bloomberg administration deserves credit for opposing the proposal to drill in the watershed.

The draft environmental impact statement has gone through several hearings since the fall and the deadline for submission of written comments was midnight Dec. 31. The federal Environmental Protection Administration submitted its testimony on Dec. 30, saying the agency had “serious reservations about whether gas drilling in the New York City watershed is consistent with the vision of long-term, high-quality, unfiltered water supply.” The E.P.A. statement called for “a very cautious approach in all watershed areas.”

The federal agency recommended that the state Department of Environmental Conservation, the lead agency in the environmental impact statement, join with the state Department of Health, which governs safe drinking-water standards, and with the state Public Service Commission, which regulates construction of natural gas pipes, to come up with a final E.I.S. The Bloomberg administration in November also called on the state Department of Health to weigh in on the E.I.S.

Nevertheless, Gennaro said at the Jan. 4 rally that in addition to “lecturing the state,” the federal agency should take the lead in creating nationwide regulations on hydrofracture gas drilling.

Congressmembers Eric Massa and Michael Arcuri, who represent districts in the state’s Southern Tier and Adirondack regions, also called for a statewide drilling ban, along with City Councilmembers James Brennan and William Colton, both of Brooklyn, and former Councilmember Tony Avella of Queens. Martha Robertson, Tompkins County legislator, said, “If it [hydrofracture drilling] is not safe for New York City, it’s not safe for Tompkins County.” She noted that much of the county’s water comes from individual wells.

Alex Matthiessen, president of Riverkeeper, said Paterson could go down in history as the governor who destroyed the New York City watershed if hydrofracking were allowed. He also said that in the worst-case scenario, if drilling were permitted, the state should impose an excise tax to raise money for D.E.C. enforcement of drilling regulations.

Representatives of other environmental groups at the rally included Annie Wilson, Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter Energy Committee; Deborah Goldberg, Earthjustice; Kate Sinding, National Resource Defense Council lawyer; Wes Gillingham, Catskill Mountainkeeper; and Joel Kupferman, New York Environmental Law & Justice Project attorney.