Sept. 30, 2009: Chemical spill is a wakeup call

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To The Editor:
No sooner had I noticed a bold quote bearing my name on the front page (CMN 9/16-22) of Matthew Perry’s coverage of the Andes Public Library’s informational talk on gas drilling than a huge chemical spill by Cabot Oil and Gas occurred near Dimock, Pennsylvania. Halliburton fracking chemicals, more than 6,000 gallons known to pose a health risk, spread into the area’s surface water system.
Those who dismiss environmental concerns as scare tactics can chalk it up to just another red flag. Recently, Pennsylvania officials called on the federal government’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for special assistance because of chemical dumping in West Virginia that led to a disastrous 30-mile fish kill on one of Pennsylvania’s recreational streams. The high presence of chlorides (salt) indicates drilling as the culprit. What if this had been our beloved Beaverkill River? Incidents like these underscore the need for effective regulation that engages local, state and federal government in the protection of our water.
In prior incidents, fracking fluids from Pennsylvania were trucked to West Virginia and disposed of as sewage. The toxic water found its way back into the Monongahela River, which supplies Pennsylvania; residents were instructed to drink bottled water. An industrial process that turns huge volumes of fresh water into contaminated production fluid calls for federal regulation. Rivers, streams and aquifers do not respect state boundaries.
The jam-packed audience that attended the Andes info session demonstrated widespread interest as well as frustration with the lack of definitive data. But to get beyond anecdotal evidence requires a level of monitoring and investigation that cash-strapped state governments lack. New York’s Department of Conservation (DEC) has a dual mandate: to develop natural resources and to safeguard the public, leaving the public with a one-eyed watchdog. In 2006, Pennsylvania hired a full-time investigator and 52 cases of “methane migration” have been documented over the past five years. Even if these represent only a small percentage of that state’s 58,000 active wells, it would be foolhardy to ignore such evidence. A single case of contamination may involve an entire community, like the 16 Dimock households plagued with gas explosions and fouled water.
The EPA has been powerless to investigate complaints because hydraulic fracturing was exempted from the Safe Water Drinking Act by the Energy Policy Act of 2005. With federal government barred from scientific inquiry and rigorous testing, the public has little recourse in the face of corporations with sophisticated lawyers and lobbyists. Recently, the EPA took exception under the Superfund program, gaining authority to investigate water contamination in rural Pavilion, Wyoming. Preliminary findings announced in August verified a range of contaminants, including arsenic, copper, vanadium and methane gas that are linked to gas drilling activity.
Mr. Perry’s article stated that gas drilling has “faded in importance over the past year due to slumping prices for the commodity. Not exactly. Your readers may be interested to know that in nearby Pennsylvania applications for drilling permits have already surpassed 2009 estimates. Although natural gas prices are down, so is the cost of drilling. Due to recession pricing, gas drilling contractors are cheaper and the big Northeast market is close by, making delivery more cost effective. So gas drilling companies have pulled back in western states and focused more attention on the Marcellus play. While some readers may worry that over-regulation will drive the industry away, it’s unlikely given the size and proximity of the Northeast market and the political push to develop domestic energy sources. The cost of drilling is based on a 30-year investment model, so even with slumping gas prices, companies are taking a long-term view.
Soon the public will have an opportunity to review the supplemental regulations (GEIS) designed to govern the new technology of drilling in New York. I urge your readers to go to the public meetings and ask the hard questions, like how will an already understaffed DEP manage enforcement? Demand that your elected representatives work not just to develop economic resources but to protect the public. There are no simple answers, but we should all stand up for our rights to clean air and water and the safeguards to ensure and enforce best practices.

Anne Saxon-Hersh,
Fleischmanns