Gas drilling concerns aired at DEC hearing
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A debate raging across the state took center stage in Corning on Wednesday evening as the state Department of Environmental Conservation held a public hearing on its new regulations for natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.
Hundreds crowded the auditorium at Corning East High School, and dozens spoke passionately about their concerns. Many drew loud applause as others held up signs protesting the impending drilling boom in the Southern Tier, television cameras rolled and police officers watched.
The controversy centers around the Marcellus, a deep underground, previously untapped formation thought to contain the richest supply of gas in North America. Thousands of new wells are expected across upstate New York, and drilling them requires massive amounts of water mixed with toxic chemicals.
The process generates huge amounts of waste water and has been linked to a wide array of environmental problems. Opponents say the Marcellus boom will be on a much larger scale than drilling that has occurred here in the past, with heavy truck traffic and big areas of land being bulldozed.
But the boom is also expected to bring a windfall to landowners who sign gas leases, as well as a significant boost to the upstate New York economy. More than a year ago, the DEC was charged with updating its regulations, turning out an 800-page draft for review, and Wednesday’s public hearing in Corning was one of only a handful held across the state.
Many in attendance claimed the regulations weren’t nearly stringent enough.
Clayton Banks, a staffer for U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, D-Corning, opened Wednesday’s hearing by reading a strongly worded statement written by the 29th District congressman that called Marcellus gas drilling an issue of “extreme significance” and said there are many concerns to be addressed before drilling should be allowed to move forward.
“Given the toxicity of the chemicals used in this process and the many devastating cases of contamination we have seen around the country as a result of operator errors, there is full justification for substantial oversight and strong guidelines regulating this activity,” Massa said. “Currently, however, the incomprehensive regulatory framework in (the proposed regulations), along with insufficient enforcement capabilities, is inadequate to prevent catastrophes similar to those across the border in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.”
Andy Patros, a Chemung County legislator, noted the regulations call for county health departments to be responsible for testing and monitoring private water wells near drilling sites, and wondered where the funding and staffing would come from.
Joe St. Angelo, a Van Etten councilman, said that hundreds of trucks would be required to service each new well in his rural town - a likely drilling hotbed - and there was no money in the budget to repair the road damage that will occur. He said the gas boom would be over in 15 years, leaving wells polluted and property devalued.
“Unfortunately, we’re being overwhelmed by an industry that we have no control over,” St. Angelo said.
Not all spoke against Marcellus drilling.
Ken Knowles Sr., of Woodhull, president of the Steuben Landowners Coalition, said his group hads 1,200 members with 150,000 acres.
“Our position is, if you are opposed to drilling, you are in favor of foreign oil,” a phrase he repeated several times during his speech to a smattering of boos and applause.
“Allow us to harvest our natural resources. That’s all we’re asking for,” Knowles said. Everyone in this room, and in this state, and in the U.S., share these abundant resources. Realize that the lights we use, the heat we enjoy, the traveling we do, would not be possible if we could not harvest our natural resources.”
“Landowners and farmers, because of high taxes, lower agricultural prices and the economy are struggling to survive,” Knowles continued. “Our state government is on the verge of bankruptcy ... there’s nothing on the economic horizon that offers the benefits for everyone, landowners or not, that can come close to helping our survival like these natural resources.”
Knowles said rapid technology advances in the drilling industry would ease environmental problems. He also noted that gas companies have always been a good neighbor, an employer, and a taxpayer in Steuben County.
But others claimed the gas industry has a checkered past in New York.
Ithaca environmental activist Walter Hang, who runs a firm called Toxics Targeting Inc. that maps sites affected by pollution, detailed a long history of problems caused by the oil and gas industry.
He said his firm examined DEC records and found 270 incidents, including “fires, explosions, massive pollution releases, contaminated drinking water sources, home evacuations, tainted farmland and widespread threats to wetlands, streams, ponds and other sensitive receptors.”
He said the DEC’s new safeguards were inadequate and failed to address the issue of dealing with the high volume of waste produced by Marcellus drilling, and said he and 1,500 other citizens, elected officials and organizations will be submitting a letter to Gov. David Paterson requesting withdrawal of the regulations.
The DEC will continue accepting written comments through Dec. 31. Submission guidelines are posted online at www.dec.ny.gov.