Syracuse Post Standard: As NY mulls hydrofracking regulations, gas companies lease land in CNY watersheds
By Delen Goldberg / The Post-Standard
December 28, 2009, 6:00AM
The Skaneateles Lake watershed, which supplies water to more than 200,000 people in the city of Syracuse, is a potential site for high volume hydrofracking drilling to capture natural gas. Oil and gas companies hold several hundred leases on land in the Skaneateles and Otisco Lake watersheds. Skaneateles, NY - You can’t dump trash, sewage or pesticides into Skaneateles Lake.
It’s illegal to boat, swim or fish near water intake pipes in the pristine water.
Even throwing snow and ice into the lake is prohibited.
The rules are designed to keep Skaneateles Lake clean, because it provides drinking water to more than 200,000 Central New Yorkers.
But while the city of Syracuse spends about $750,000 a year to protect the lake and its water, the state is poised to allow oil and gas companies to use chemicals, sand and large amounts of water to drill for natural gas within the Skaneateles Lake watershed.
The watershed is the area of land that feeds water into the lake from creeks, brooks and drainage ways. Companies hope to profit off the rich swaths of natural gas trapped deep in the shale underground.
As of early December, oil and gas companies had bought drilling rights on almost 100 parcels of land in the Skaneateles watershed, according to Onondaga County property records. Drillers hold at least 150 leases in the Otisco Lake watershed. They’ve secured dozens more in land in the Cortland-Homer-Preble Sole Source Aquifer system, which cuts across Onondaga and Cortland counties.
Skaneateles Lake provides drinking water to more than 200,000 people in Skaneateles, Elbridge, Jordan and Syracuse. The lake is so clean that Syracuse is one of only seven large cities in the United States that don’t need a water filtration plant.
Otisco Lake is the primary source for the Onondaga County Water Authority. The lake provides drinking water to about 220,000 Central New Yorkers, mostly in the southern and western parts the county, from DeWitt to Clay and Geddes to Marcellus.
The Cortland Sole Source Aquifer supplies most of the drinking water to residents in that area. The region has no alternative water source.
Legislators, policy makers and environmental advocates now worry that high-volume hydrofracking will compromise Central New York’s precious drinking water.
The “fracking” involves shooting millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand into wells to break up shale rock below and create microscopic pathways for natural gas to escape.
They think watershed areas should be regulated differently than open fields, undeveloped land and even backyards.
“This is an important water supply so it can’t just be treated like a pond,” Syracuse Water Commissioner Mike Ryan said of Skaneateles Lake.
Last week, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection released a report that concluded that natural gas drilling in watershed areas would pose “unacceptable risks” to residents and create “a substantial risk of chemical contamination.” Scientists estimated that drilling could result in hundreds of tons per day of fracturing chemicals migrating through the watershed.
Officials with the state Department of Health also reviewed potential public health impacts from natural gas drilling and, in a letter to the state Department of Environmental Conservation, said they “have concerns related to the potential release of waste-water as a result of leakage, catastrophic pit wall failure and improper waste-water disposal.”
Lee Macbeth, Syracuse’s watershed control coordinator, is drafting a letter to the DEC about her fears that increased truck traffic, associated with transporting fracking materials, will boost the likelihood of a chemical or diesel spill that could ooze into the lake.
She said she also worries that trucks will erode the shoreline and kick up dust and sediment that could float into drinking water supplies.
Fracking wastewater contains a cocktail of chemicals, several of which have been found to cause health problems. Oil and gas companies are exempt from several federal environmental statutes, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Water Act. That means the federal government can’t use the penalties under those laws to prosecute companies that pollute. Congress left it up to individual states to decide regulations.
“If I had my druthers, I’d say don’t do it in my watershed,” Macbeth said. “But so would everyone else.”
Oil and gas executives insist the process is safe.
“I could give example after example of drilling that’s taken place in watersheds very safely,” said Brad Gill, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, a lobbying group for oil and gas producers. “Do incidents ever occur? Sure they do. There’s human error, but that’s in any industry.”
Pennsylvania, a hotbed for hydrofracking, has experienced several of the incidents Gill referred to.
• In September, a company fracking in Dimock, Pa., about 25 miles south of Binghamton, caused three separate chemical spills in less than a week, fouling a creek and wetland.
• Two months later, Cabot Oil and Gas Corp. agreed to pay $120,000 in civil penalties after the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection found the company responsible for allowing methane gas to migrate into 13 families’ wells.
• In late November, 15 Dimock families sued Cabot, claiming the company allowed pollutants to seep into their water supplies. The plaintiffs include one of the company’s own workers and a woman whose drinking water well exploded.
Similar stories of exploding wells and houses and contaminated water supplies are documented in news reports from around the country. Congress recently asked the federal Environmental Protection Agency to study the effects of fracking on drinking water.
Gill said New York’s regulations will ensure that incidents experienced in Dimock won’t take place in New York.
“New York is the most regulated state in the nation, without a doubt, and after the SGEIS becomes effective, we can say the most regulated state in the world,” Gill said.
The DEC is in the process of drafting guidelines for natural gas drilling. The agency is collecting public comments on the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS, through Thursday. No high-volume hydrofracking will take place here until the environmental review is complete.
The draft SGEIS outlines several rules for companies drilling for natural gas. Drillers will be required to disclose to state officials the chemical makeup of fracking fluid, state inspectors will need to be present when companies begin cementing well casings, and operators who want to store wastewater on site will be forced to seal it in steel tanks, according to DEC spokesman Yancey Roy.
In watersheds, the DEC will require buffer zones around reservoirs and waterbodies, Roy said. Wells proposed within 1,000 feet of aqueducts will need special agency approval.
“If that set of rules are followed and if the drilling is done correctly...the potential for freshwater aquifer contamination should be very low,” said William Kappel, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. “But that is predicated on them doing it right.”
The safeguards don’t sit well with everyone.
New York City officials said the DEC’s document fails to include “critical and necessary analyses” and does not sufficiently address public health concerns. The agency is calling for a ban on drilling in its watershed.
In October, Chesapeake Energy, the only lease holder in New York City’s watershed, said it would not drill in that area. The announcement came after weeks of protest by environmental advocates, lawmakers and residents. But the decision was voluntary. No law prohibits drilling in the watershed.
“Though Chesapeake believes it can drill safely in any watershed, including New York City’s...we have chosen to focus our efforts on more promising areas for gas development in the state,” CEO Aubrey McClendon said in a statement.
Chesapeake also holds the majority of leases in the Skaneateles and Otisco lake watersheds.
Matthew Sheppard, Chesapeake’s senior director of corporate development, said the company’s choice to forgo drilling in the NYC watershed was a business decision and was not driven by environmental concerns. He said it was unlikely that Chesapeake would make the same choice in Central New York.
But at least 15 state lawmakers hope to force Chesapeake, and other oil and gas companies, to abandon plans to drill in watershed areas.
Sen. Tom Duane, D-Manhattan, and Assemblyman Jim Brennan, D-Brooklyn, have introduced a bill in the state Legislature that would ban gas drilling in watersheds and recharge areas of sole source aquifers. Duane said he is against hydrofracking generally, but especially in sensitive watersheds.
“I believe based on experiences in other states that the technology either is not good enough to ensure that water sources don’t get contaminated, or the industry does not care enough about water safety to make sure they don’t leave contamination where they drilled,” Duane said. “I don’t think there’s a way that fracking can be accomplished without destroying New York’s water.”
Central New Yorkers voiced similar concerns in 2005 when the DEC announced plans to open Bear Swamp State Forest in Cayuga County and Hewitt State Forest in Cortland County to gas drillers. Bear Swamp and parts of Hewitt are in the Skaneateles Lake watershed.
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