New state recommendations for high-volume hydraulic fracturing were met with concern Friday by residents and environmental watch groups in Schoharie County.
The state Department of Environmental Conservation’s proposals for regulating hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” on private land are worrisome to residents who live in the county’s northern section, which sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, a vast shale formation, rich in natural gas, underlying parts of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia.
Those who live on or near the Schoharie Reservoir, a watershed drainage basin serving New York City, said they find little relief from the DEC’s fracking ban on New York City watersheds. Although a small part of the county falls within the watershed, area officials say the new regulations leave the rest of the county at risk.
“If the practice of hydrofracking is too dangerous for New York City’s water supply, why is it not too dangerous for Schoharie County’s water supply?” asked Robert Nied, co-director of Schoharie Valley Watch. “We don’t think their water safety is any more critical than the rest of New York.”
On Friday, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens emphasized the draft’s “stringent controls” on drilling, which he said can be done safely with the precautions the DEC built into the process.
The DEC study proposed a ban on drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and on any state-owned property. But hydraulic fracturing will be allowed on private land under various controls codified into state law. About 85 percent of the state’s Marcellus Shale formation would be permitted for drilling.
“We just feel there is good reason for an excess of caution,” Martens said, referencing the agency’s 2009 study, which did not include as many precautions. “We think these controls are more appropriate, they’re better and they’ll safeguard the environment.”
Among the significant changes in the more than 900-page DEC report are a ban on drilling within primary aquifers and 500 feet of their boundaries, monitoring of wastewater from wells and other drilling waste, and disclosure of all chemical additives used in the fracking process.
Opponents of hydraulic fracturing cite highly publicized drilling tragedies — flammable tap water in Colorado, methane explosions in West Virginia, and contaminated water in Pennsylvania — as reason to continue the state’s de facto moratorium on fracking.
Nied said the county’s porous topography makes it susceptible to contaminants that might leak into water supplies from irresponsible drilling.
“Our water tends to go in all directions — up, down, sideways — which means the contaminants would as well,” he said. “From our perspective there certainly is a potential for contamination to happen here more than elsewhere.”
As of December 2010, several companies had filed gas lease agreements with Schoharie County, including Gastem USA, Mid-Central Exploration, Mid-Central Land & Exploration, and Utica Energy.
Currently, 90 percent of Schoharie County’s drilling leases are in Sharon Springs. Other county leases were signed for portions of Carlisle, Esperance, Cobleskill, Schoharie and Richmondville.
“We have the most leases in the most sensitive areas,” Nied said. “In Schoharie County, we’re not anywhere near as heavily leased as say, Otsego County. But certainly there’s going to be increased pressure once drilling opens up.”
Schoharie Valley Watch issued formal comments to Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s office on the local regulations it would like put in place, Nied said. The DEC’s recommendations need to allow municipalities and zoning boards to respect local wishes, he added.
“We’ve been pushing for some time for local regulations to control or even prohibit hydrofracking,” he said. “If it’s a rural area, it’s entirely legitimate for these agencies to say heavy industrial operations are not compatible with the area.”
Legislators in Schoharie County have contacted the Schoharie Valley Watch for input on local regulations they’re looking to develop, as well. The county’s supervisors could not be reached for comment Friday.
Resident Lisa Zaccaglini hosted a call to action event last week against hydrofracking in Sharon Springs. Pennsylvania residents living near leased land have warned her against fracking dangers, she said.
“We’ve had a chance to see what it’s doing in other states and it’s not what we want in New York,” she said. “We want the town and village to ban it. That’s what a number of towns in upstate New York are doing right now.”
Town and village boards are where discussion needs to happen, Nied said. Planning committees and zoning enforcement officers can be helpful to the process too.
“It’s encouraging that we’re at least getting this kind of feedback,” he said. “We really need to apply pressure to our local officials. Ultimately this may be the line in the sand. This may be the only way that citizens of New York and Schoharie County can protect themselves is with local regulations.”