Almost exactly four years ago, Community Board 2 held a forum on high-volume hydraulic fracturing. Few people had any idea what it was, but true to form, Villagers showed up en masse and quickly became vocal participants in the discussion.
I was chairperson of the community board at that time and I remember many of the questions that were asked. What is hydrofracking? What chemicals does it use? Is it safe to blast these chemicals into shale that could leak into watersheds? Why doesn’t the federal government regulate hydrofracking under the Clean Water Act?
Years later, we now know that there are no satisfying answers to these questions, or to the dozens of other questions that have arisen as catastrophes associated with natural gas drilling have occurred throughout the nation. In fact, many believe — and I agree — that hydrofracking is the most significant threat to our environment and our public health in decades. From flammable tap water to poisoned farm animals to ravaged rural communities to man-made earthquakes, the impacts of hydrofracking are becoming widely known thanks to films like “Gasland” and the work of environmental groups like Riverkeeper.
Fast-forward to early 2013. The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, which is charged with determining whether to permit hydrofracking in our state and, if so, how to regulate it, has received a record 74,000-plus comments on its draft environmental impact study. The previous record was held by a proposal to expand of a cement plant in Albany County, which had garnered a paltry 800 comments. (The cement plant expansion was approved.)
Of course, not all of the comments on hydrofracking are in opposition. But the momentum in our state is clearly against rushing ahead with this questionable method of drilling, as local governments, landowner coalitions, small businesses, university scientists, environmental advocates and concerned citizens have expressed deep concerns about its potential impacts.
Remember: When C.B. 2 held that forum, New York State was preparing to follow the lead of other states and permit hydrofracking under existing — and woefully inadequate — regulations. Now, heeding the call of countless New Yorkers, Governor Cuomo is leading the country in providing time for the most robust review of the health and environmental impacts of hydrofracking conducted by a government agency to date. Recently, his administration let a deadline expire for finalizing regulations because its health impact analysis was not complete, thereby restarting a significant component of the public review process.
I am proud that our state and our governor have demonstrated independence from the oil and gas industry. Indeed, on March 6, the New York State Assembly voted to approve a two-year ban on hydrofracking with the support of local Assemblymembers Dick Gottfried and Deborah Glick. It’s a testament to New Yorkers’ activism on the issue, including hundreds upon hundreds of town meetings, rallies and visits with public officials across the entire state — and yes, here in Manhattan, too. This work is all the more important because no elected official can take on special interests without the strong support of their constituents.
The issue of hydrofracking particularly resonates with me because of my background. I’m originally from West Virginia, a state that permitted energy companies to use untested and unsafe methods to extract coal as an economic development tool. The results, as many know, have been calamitous. Mountaintop-removal mines in West Virginia and surrounding states have demolished an estimated 1.4 million acres of forested hills, buried roughly 2,000 miles of streams, poisoned drinking water, and literally wiped entire towns from the map.
Parts of New York where hydrofracking would occur, just like West Virginia, are in dire economic circumstances and hydrofracking is seen as a way to address the high unemployment rate. But at what cost to our environment and the health and safety of our water supply in the long run? Before we can answer this crucial question, we need the facts.
First, the State Department of Health must make its health impact study of hydrofracking available for public review. Second, we need to see the Department of Environmental Conservation’s next set of proposed regulations. Will they protect all water sources, including private wells, and address the cumulative impacts of multiple wells in a given area? Will the regulations ban the use of certain toxic chemicals in fracking fluids, some of which are known carcinogens? What are the plans for wastewater treatment to handle the unprecedented quantities of toxic flowback? Will local governments have the right to say “no” to drilling companies?
All of these questions require detailed answers. Until then, I’m extremely skeptical that we can ever safely regulate hydrofracking. Notwithstanding any short-term economic benefits from hydrofracking, that is why I’m co-sponsoring legislation that would ban it throughout the state. As a great New Yorker and early environmentalist, Theodore Roosevelt, once said, “The conservation of natural resources is the fundamental problem. Unless we solve that problem it will avail us little to solve all others.”
Hoylman is state senator for the 27th District