DEC chief defends fracking safeguards

(07/04/11) Governor Cuomo’s environmental commissioner laid out plans for hydrofracking in New York. Joe Martens saidhe believes the controversial method of extracting natural gas can be done safely.Martens detailed the Department of Environmental Conservation’s planned safeguards one day after the agency revealed it planned to allow fracking on privately owned lands in the state. But environmentalists are skeptical.
Karen DeWitt has more.

“Our top priority, obviously, is drinking water,” Martens said. Martens said a number of safeguards will be required to ensure that homeowners drinking wells and public water supplies are not contaminated.

There won’t be any fracking allowed in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, drilling will have to be 500 feet away from other primary aquifers, and there won’t be any surface drilling allowed on state owned lands.  There will be increased monitoring and testing of drilling equipment, and additional concrete liners will be required in wells to prevent the chemicals used in the process from seeping elsewhere. 

Martens said the DEC will make more of an effort to get the gas companies to reveal the exact mix of chemicals they inject into the wells to extract natural gas. Although NYSDEC has released reports listing the type of chemicals injected, many of the companies have claimed the specific chemicals are trade secrets.

According to Democrats of the U.S. House Committee on Energy and Commerce, hydrofracking’s chemical-laced water could contain carcinogens, endocrine disrupters and hazardous air pollutants.

Commissioner Martens say extra care will be taken to remove that water, known as flow backwater. “This process would be similar to how medical waste is now handled,” Martens said.    

Martens and his staff admit that even with all the precautions, some accidents could conceivable occur and people’s drinking water could be contaminated.

DEC counsel Steve Russo says the process will require baseline tests of private wells before drilling, so that there will be a way to prove whether the gas company contaminated the well.

Russo said if there is harm, the state would not recompense the landowner. “It would be private lawsuit,” Russo said.

The decision to eventually allow drilling was applauded by the state’s largest business lobby. The Business Council’s Heather Briccetti, who was invited to attend the presentation, says fracking could create as many as 37,000 new jobs in New York, in the drilling industry and support services, like restaurants and hotels. 

“We’re very encouraged that they’re moving the ball forward,” said Briccetti, who also said she believes fracking can be “safe.”

Environmentalists, who were left waiting outside in the hallway, are skeptical. Roger Downs, with the Sierra Club, said, “We have to wait to see the details.”

The DEC is setting up an advisory panel, comprised of gas industry officials and environmentalists, including Robert Kennedy, Junior, as well as Deputy Senate Leader Tom Libous, a proponent of fracking.

Wes Gillingham, with Catskill Mountainkeeper, says his group has been working with the administration to try to ensure protections from hydrofracking, but he says the announcement to go ahead with fracking on private property in New York has caused a rift. He points out that there is substantial private land in the Catskill Park, and predicts under this plan, potentially harmful drilling would occur.

“As of now we’re calling for a statewide ban,” said Gillingham.

It will be several more months at least, before any drilling could begin. The DEC intends to further refine its report and release more details later in July. Martens says the public will have the summer to review the document, then there will be comment period, with the final report due sometime late in the year.

The commissioner admits that recent lay offs at the department may affect the speed of the permitting process, and he said he’s going to need more staff to avoid a backlog of permits.


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