By Tom Casey
On the day of a large rally outside the Capitol, Senate Democrats introduced the first significant legislation against hydraulic fracturing since the 2010 moratorium imposed by former Gov. David Paterson and the Department of Environmental Conservation.
Sens. Tony Avella, D-Whitestone, Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, and Joseph Addabbo, D-Queens, introduced a package of bills April 11 that includes three bills for tighter regulations and transparency for oil and gas drilling and a bill by Avella to ban hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, in New York state.
"I don't see it as that great of a request to require these gas companies to inform the public on what chemicals they're blasting into the Earth," said Krueger. "They want us to just fall in line and not ask any questions, to just trust them. Well, we saw what they did with Pennsylvania's trust, and I say no."
She was referring to a lawsuit filed by 31 Pennsylvania residents against the Southwest Energy Co. accusing the company of contaminating their water supplies for drinking, cooking and bathing with hazardous chemicals and pollutants as a result of hydrofracking.
Krueger's bill (S.425) would prohibit the use of fracking fluids "containing chemicals that pose a risk to human health." Also in the package is S.4251-a, a bill sponsored by Addabbo, that would require treatment facilities to test waste from hydraulic fracturing operations for radioactivity. The Assembly bill (A.2922) is sponsored by Robert Sweeney, D-Babylon.
Marcus Ferguson, director of government affairs for The Business Council of New York State, called Krueger's bill, a "back door way of extending the moratorium."
"We felt like this policy would significantly delay the drilling process even further," said Ferguson at the Business Council's 2011 spring environmental conference.
Avella introduced two bills in the Clean Water legislative package (S.2697 and S.4220). The first bill would amend the Environmental Conservation Law and enact provisions to ensure natural gas development practices would be sustainable and safe.
Avella's second bill takes regulations a step further and calls for a complete ban on the use of hydraulic fracturing "in the process of drilling for natural gas or oil".
"It's clear to me that until we can be assured that the practice of hydrofracking presents absolutely no threat to New York's residents and their drinking water, we must completely ban fracking," said Avella.
The legislative package was introduced shortly after hundreds of protesters, activists and lawmakers rallied in West Capitol Park against hydraulic fracturing, because of the feared health and environmental impact that type of drilling can have on the environment.
"I know I'm preaching to the choir so I'm not going to stand here and tell you all the reasons we shouldn't be doing hydrofracking, you know what the reasons are," said Avella to the protesters. "We have to convince everybody else."
The crowd, which gathered in support of the "Water Rangers" campaign to safeguard the state's water resources, responded to Avella, chanting "4220," the number of his fracking ban bill.
Sens. Krueger and David Carlucci, D-Clarkstown, and Assembly members Steven Englebright, D-East Setauket, and Barbra Lifton, D-Ithaca, also called for a ban on the drilling technique that uses high-pressured water and chemicals to fracture rock formations deep underground to extract natural gas.
"There is a lot of reason to be concerned and I say that not just as a legislator, I say that as an individual who has a master's degree in geology," said Englebright. "You are being given misinformation when they say there are no hazards to this process. They know better and so do you."
Englebright, introduced the "look before you leap act 2011" in March to establish a five-year moratorium on hydrofracking. The state has a moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking, preventing the drilling of new gas wells until the findings of the DEC's Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement are released.
"Some are going to say [five years] is excessive, they wanted this approved yesterday," said Englebright. "People in hell want ice water, we want pure water."
The crowd of protesters also heard from Josh Fox, whose Academy Award nominated documentary "Gasland" tells the story of his travels across the United States to families affected by hydrofracking and to the rigs conducting the fracking.
"We have better water here in New York than we have in the whole world, without a doubt. If you were to allow this massive campaign of hydrofracking you're going to contaminate that water and you will also decimate all the other industries in New York state," said Fox. "It simply does not work; it makes no sense. It's a short term gain [monetarily] for long-term misery."
Fox said he revisited the people and places he went to in his film and said the signs were not good in the communities.
"It's gotten worse, none of these situations have gotten better, and that's because of government inaction," said Fox. "We've seen a lot of passing the buck and we need to see real action and the only place that this has gotten better is in New York because [horizontal hydraulic fracturing] hasn't started."
The bills do face some opposition, however. Deputy Senate Majority Leader Thomas Libous, R-Binghamton, has spoken in favor of safe hydraulic fracturing, even sponsoring a website, SafeDrillingNow.com. Following the moratorium's passage, Libous sent a letter to then DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis, and explained his position.
"I favor natural gas drilling because of its huge economic benefit to the state and local communities as long as our water is protected, our roads are maintained and our quality of life isn't endangered," he said.
Libous' site says Fox's film is factually inaccurate and calls the filmmaker a radical activist. It also offers links to, among other things, websites and documents in support of lifting the moratorium and allowing drilling across the state.
Libous introduced a bill in February (S.3137) to allow counties to lease their land for natural gas exploration, development, and production for five years or as long as gas is produced.
However, Natalie Brant, a mother of eight from Erie County who lives near a vertical hydraulic fracturing well, believes there is no safe fracking.
She joined Fox on the steps of the West Capitol Park. She displayed several bottles filled with dirty water from her tap, which she says is a result of hydrofracking and is making her family sick.
"They started fracking by my house about two and a half years ago, and I've had a lot of problems, a lot of health problems with my children," said Brant. "From one day to the next you don't know what's coming out of my tap … We need Andrew Cuomo, our governor, to have backbone to stand up to the gas and oil industry and tell them to get out of New York state."
Brant said since the company US Energy began fracking in her area, she lives in constant fear that her house will "blow up" and that she can light her tap water on fire. She also said the water from her shower chemically burns her skin and if she uses her washing machine, the water destroys her clothes.
"It's very difficult, it's affecting every part of our lives we are struggling in a very bad way, as are so many of my neighbors," said Brant.
Brant says she now has to buy 100 gallons of water a week, because US Energy no longer delivers water to her house despite promising deliveries for six months. She also claims she has video and photographic evidence the company dumps the extracted frack fluid into a creek behind her house.
"I'm not an activist, I'm just a mom who has been affected in a really bad way and I cannot believe they are allowing this to go on in America and in New York state, we're not known for this bologna," said Brant. "I see this whole gas thing as a scam, a handful of people get rich, and the rest of us can drop dead."
Following the rally, the protesters entered the Capitol and Legislative Office Building to lobby lawmakers to vote for a ban. Of the bills introduced by the Senate Democrats, Addabbo's and Avella's are in the Senate Environmental Conservation Committee, Krueger's bill was defeated in the same committee last Wednesday.