Op-ed column: Ignoring danger signals

Has Gov. Andrew Cuomo been using the same strategy for fracking that former-Gov. Mario Cuomo used fo

Has Gov. Andrew Cuomo been using the same strategy for fracking that former-Gov. Mario Cuomo used for Westway? Is this a case of like father, like son?

So far it looks like déjà vu all over again.

Westway was a controversial $4 billion Manhattan “interstate” highway and real estate project that called for landfilling a 4.2-mile stretch of the Hudson River between 33rd Street and Battery Park City. It was backed by President Reagan, Gov. Hugh Carey, Sens. Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Alfonse D’Amato, Mayor Edward I. Koch, David Rockefeller, and construction, labor and real-estate interests. But it was opposed by environmental organizations, mass transit advocates and community residents.

In the summer of 1982, Westway came to a temporary halt when federal Judge Thomas Griesa found that state officials had covered up the potentially damaging impact on the Hudson’s striped bass, which contribute significantly to the Atlantic coastal run.

“I have sentenced people to prison in securities fraud cases where the conduct was less blatant than the drafting of these instruments [the striped bass studies],” the judge said. “I am deadly serious about this.”

Faced with what to do about Westway, gubernatorial candidate Mario Cuomo announced that he had asked former federal prosecutor Thomas Puccio to investigate the project. Cuomo went on to win the election and, in the spring of 1983, Puccio presented the new governor with a 58-page report concluding that the study of striped bass was “deceptive and false, failing to disclose the seriousness of the potential impact on striped bass and obscuring this intentionally.”

Damaging report

Puccio’s report found “The State and its consultants had acted in bad faith and conspired with the Federal Highway Administration to suppress the new information on potential fisheries impacts and to deceive the public” and that Westway executives and state attorneys “had also participated in the misconduct.”

In an interview, Puccio called Westway a “real-estate boondoggle” and urged that the $1.5 billion in committed federal funding be traded in to improve mass transit, streets and bridges. “People commit perjury because big money is at stake,” he said. “There are heavy interests involved here.”

The first Gov. Cuomo not only brushed off Puccio’s report, he embraced Westway so fully that he refused to be in the same room with Albert Butzel, the lawyer for the opposition, and he joined Koch in ridiculing the fishery issue.

“This is where the bass create the bassettes,” wisecracked the governor. Koch added, “I’d buy them a hotel.” In 1985, when Judge Griesa ruled a second study inadequate and refused to allow construction to begin, Cuomo vowed to fight the decision.

However, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld Griesa, Mario Cuomo surrendered, and Westway now sleeps with the fishes.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is a horizontal, high-volume, slick-water drilling process that extracts “unconventional” natural gas locked in shale or other formations a mile or more deep in the earth.

It calls for a witch’s brew of several million gallons of water, sand, and chemicals, some poisonous or carcinogenic, to be injected under high pressure into the target formation where, moving horizontally, it explodes like a pipe bomb shattering the shale imprisoning the gas.

Legalizing the process

Fracking can continue horizontally for about a mile, extracting more gas, even under land whose owners’ object, in accordance with “Compulsory Integration.” This pickpocket procedure became legal in 2005 when the Independent Oil and Gas Industry of New York drafted the statute, and the Department of Environmental Conservation forwarded it to the state Legislature, which approved it without a hearing.

In another smooth move that year, Congress passed the 2005 Energy Policy Act which, thanks to the “Halliburton Loophole” concocted by Vice President Dick Cheney, exempts the oil and gas industry from the Safe Drinking Water Act and other relevant environmental laws.

Thus frackers can contaminate wells, reservoirs, aquifers, rivers, lakes, streams, ponds and wetlands, not only with the brew that goes down, but with the 5 percent to 40 percent of the brew that returns, so-called “flowback.” At the Marcellus Shale in the southern half of New York, the flowback is laden with contaminants, while the remaining contaminated water has a high probability of migrating through natural and man-made fissures in the bedrock, allowing it to rise and ultimately poison existing groundwater wells.

The flowback includes brine and “naturally occurring radioactive material” such as uranium and thorium and their daughter radium 226Ra.

In testimony before the Delaware River Basin Commission in 2010, Conrad D. Volz of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, quoting from a review in Environmental Science and Technology, noted that the DEC “reported that thirteen samples of wastewater from Marcellus Shale gas extraction contained levels of radium-226 (226Ra) as high as 267 times the safe disposal limit and thousands of times the limit safe for people to drink. The New York State

Department of Health analyzed three Marcellus Shale production brine samples and found elevated gross alpha, gross beta, and Ra226 in the production brine.”

Negative impacts

The process of fracking can make living nearby a nightmare, with bright night lights, 24/7 compressor noise that can carry for miles, and the ceaseless traffic of 18-wheel 80-ton trucks. The work can make it difficult to get insurance or a mortgage. It can slash property values, even make sale impossible, fragment the landscape with thousands of five-acre drill pads linked to a metastasizing web of access roads and pipelines, kill livestock, decimate wildlife, and trigger air pollution — in short, change much of the state into an industrial wasteland.

In response to protest last year, Gov. David Paterson ordered the DEC to complete a revised draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement by June 2011.

Faced with the hot issue of fracking, candidate Andrew Cuomo declared, “New York state must ensure that if, and when the Shale’s natural gas is obtained, it does not come at the expense of human health or have adverse environmental impacts. In particular, it is critical that no drilling be conducted that might negatively affect any existing watershed.”

When the DEC published the draft SGEIS in September, it showed that only the New York City watershed in the Catskills and Syracuse watershed are off-limits to fracking, leaving the water supply of multitudes of New Yorkers open to contamination. Moreover, fracking waste is not considered hazardous; it can be stored in open pits, and tracking it is left up to the gas operators. There is no serious examination of potential health impacts, even though, to quote Bernard D. Goldstein, former dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health, “It is a statistical certainty that an increase in disease diagnoses — be it pancreatic cancer, autism or whatever — will happen after drilling activities begin.”

Deficient study

The draft SGEIS is so riddled with deficiencies as to make the state’s fraudulent striped bass studies in the Westway case seem like the Gettysburg Address, and although it runs to more than 1,000 pages, only 90 days are allowed for review.

No wonder that an ever-growing number of towns have passed laws curbing heavy industry.

There is no way the DEC can claim fracking is safe, yet Andrew Cuomo is embracing it as his father did Westway. Before the legal fights start, he should note that Westway lost because 30 percent of the Hudson’s striped bass would have been impacted — but fracking will impact a far higher percentage of the state’s human population and everything that goes with it.

Robert H. Boyle, the founder of Riverkeeper and the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research, lives in Otsego County. The Gazette encourages readers to submit material on local issues for the Sunday Opinion section.

Categories: Opinion

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