Fly-Fishing: Fracking rules will help protect drinking water

If there was any question about whether fracking is dangerous for trout streams, Gov. Andrew Cuomo a

If there was any question about whether fracking is dangerous for trout streams, Gov. Andrew Cuomo answered it last week with a resounding yes.

After all, virtually every drop of New York City’s drinking water comes from trout streams: the Schoharie and Esopus Creeks and the Delaware and Neversink rivers, along with others east of the Hudson. The governor has declared the watersheds of these streams off-limits to hydraulic fracturing for natural gas.

The stated reason is to avoid having to build multibillion-dollar filtration plants for Catskills water. The obvious implication is that fracking has the potential to contaminate streams — with the highly toxic chemicals used in the process, with natural gas itself or with construction site runoff.

Trout streams beyond the Catskills will be at the mercy of an industry that doesn’t make money by protecting fragile environments.

The details of Cuomo’s plan for fracking in New York are due to be released Friday. Its executive summary, released July 1 (the same day France banned fracking), said New York could see an average of 1,600 drilling permit applications per year for the next 30 years.

The devils are in the details, but at first glance, this year’s proposal seems an improvement over the rules suggested in 2009. The Department of Environmental Conservation will require each well bore to have three concrete sleeves instead of two; fracking waste fluid will be stored in closed tanks, not open pits; a permit will now be required for water withdrawals from lakes and streams of more than 100,000 gallons per day; and gas wells will be banned from floodplains and must be kept away from wells and public drinking supplies.

Wells also will be banned from state-owned land, including Forest Preserve tracts and wildlife management areas. There will be an advisory panel to make recommendations, and its initial members are mostly from well-known environmental organizations (though the most militant grassroots fracking opponents have already written them off as too chummy with the energy industry). The DEC news release says fees will be charged for drilling permits and funding will be secured to make sure the state has enough inspectors.

But in this age of slashed government services, it’s hard to imagine New York suddenly deploying a force of inspectors that can bird-dog 1,600 new wells each year, not to mention re-fracking of old ones, and make sure unscrupulous subcontractors aren’t stealing water from fragile ecosystems or dumping fracking fluid to save a buck.

We’ll watch for experts from Trout Unlimited and others to pick through the details of the new proposal. But it’s hard for me to get past the fact that fracking is deemed unsafe for a water supply that consists entirely of trout streams. There are plenty of trout streams beyond the Catskills that have no city of nine million people looking out for them.

Besides, the world-famous fishing of the great Catskills trout streams takes place downstream of the reservoirs — in other words, outside the New York City watershed. The Beaverkill, the Williowemoc, the tailwater sections of the Neversink and the East and West branches of the Delaware — they’re as vulnerable as streams in the Leatherstocking, Finger Lakes and western New York.

And don’t forget: the Marcellus isn’t the only gas-filled shale deposit. Underneath it is the Utica shale, reaching as far north as the Capital Region and southern Adirondacks, as far east as the Hudson Valley and as far west as lakes Ontario and Erie. It’s a swath of the state that is laced with trout streams, and drilling would be allowed among them.

“If fracking is safe, why ban it in some areas?” asked Jack Ossont of the Coalition to Protect New York. “And if it’s dangerous, why allow it in others? The governor can’t have it both ways.”

Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at [email protected].

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