Officials debate gas drilling on Catskill Watershed lands

By Matthew J. Perry
A public hearing held last Wednesday in New York City provided a forum for renewed calls of opposition to gas drilling within the city’s watershed system and its filtration avoidance agreement.
“This is an industrial activity that is incompatible with the delicate watershed where nine million New Yorkers get their drinking water,” said City Councilman James Gennaro, a primary organizer of the hearing. He has requested that the state place a year-long moratorium on gas exploration within the watershed.
Invitations to the hearing were sent out to representatives of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), gas industry and environmental groups.
Representatives of the DEC and advocates for the natural gas industry who attended the hearing claimed that a rush of drilling within the city’s watershed would not be a de facto threat to water quality.
Gennaro, a geologist, declared that the city’s watershed should have been declared off-limits to drilling when Governor David Paterson signed a bill this summer that is meant to facilitate drilling. Gennaro also had sharp words for the DEP, and stated that the agency’s proposal for a mile-wide, no-drilling buffer around the city’s reservoirs would be “totally insufficient” protection.

Cooperation promised
DEP Commissioner Emily Lloyd was invited but did not attend the hearing. The statement she provided included assurance that the DEP would work closely with the state DEC to insure the safety of the city’s drinking water, and included a list of recommendations that had been submitted to DEC to reduce the risk of mishaps.
But also included was an admission that the DEP is learning as it goes. “Because there are no natural gas wells currently in the watershed, DEP does not have extensive knowledge of—let alone practical firsthand experience with—the impacts of drilling.” The agency is seeking a consulting engineer, whom is expected to be hired “within the next few weeks,” according to the statement.
Gennaro expressed hope that the consultant, once hired, would challenge all of the positions included in Lloyd’s statement.
DEC Commissioner Alexander Grannis took questions after reading his own prepared statement to the gathering. His position, consistent with prior DEC statements, sought to reassure city advocates while leaving the door open for watershed drilling.
“We would not issue a drilling permit today if a proposed well threatened the city’s or any other watershed,” Grannis said.
Afterwards, city officials asked if the DEC would require gas companies to divulge the contents of chemicals compounds used in the hydraulic fracking, a process that would be a common method of extraction in the Marcellus Shale. Grannis insisted that full disclosure of the chemicals would be required. When asked if DEC would have enough staff to handle review of drilling permits and wells, he stated that if more staff was needed, they would be hired. “We’re not in any way going to short-circuit the process,” he said.
But when asked about the DEC’s liability should the quality of city water be compromised, Grannis also claimed that the prospect of a gas rush was too overwhelming at present to provide clear answers. He defended the DEC’s record, and claimed that none of the state’s 13,000 gas and oil wells has contaminated a major water source.
Critics of the DEC have pointed out that the existing protection record means little, since hydraulic fracking is a recent development in drilling technology and has not been monitored in New York State. Gennaro’s press release states that fracking “has proven to contaminate water supplies in other states, including Wyoming and New Mexico.”
The governor’s office has directed the DEC to update its General Environmental Impact Statement as a means to oversee the gas industry in its modern form.
While the tone of the hearing was cordial, it clearly was meant to organize opposition to drilling in the watershed and included calls for action. Gennaro’s office invited all interested members of the public to attend the hearing or submit statements on the subject through e-mail. The roughly 100 people who attended applauded when Gennaro called for a moratorium and bluntly described gas drilling a threat to the city’s water.