NY Stalls On Hydro-Fracking

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(Host) One of the world’s largest reserves of natural gas –enough to supply the entire U.S. for more than two years– lies buried deep below southern New York and nearby states in an area known as the Marcellus Shale.

But the method used to extract it, called hydro-fracking, is sparking a contentious debate.

Now New York is stalling the drilling while state and federal officials study the technique.

As part of a collaboration of Northeast stations, David Chanatry with the New York Reporting Project has the story.

(Applause) "number 202"

(Chanatry) At public hearing in Binghamton, NY recently, officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency got an earful about hydrofracking.

(Speaker) "Stop this marcellus madness!" (Cheers)

(Chanatry) That was Victoria Switzer from nearby Pennsylvania, and this is Chris Ostonski, a New York landowner.

(Ostonski) "I’m an environmentalist, too. I’d like to see it happen."(cheers)

(Chanatry) They were among the hundreds of residents from New York and Pennsylvania who came to sound off on this issue that has divided the region.

David Gold, a physician from New York, addressed the Environmental Protection Agency directly.

(Gold) "Ground water contamination is staring you in the face EPA."

(Chanatry) Water pollution is what worries opponents like Gold about hydrofracking.

Here’s how it works: drillers sink wells as much as one mile deep to reach the Marcellus shale. Then they turn and drill horizontally towards cracks that are filled with gas. Next, millions of gallons of water mixed with sand and chemicals are pumped into the well at very high pressure, enough to fracture the rock. This allows the gas to flow

It’s complicated, but Brad Gill of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York says the industry’s track record in other states should reassure New Yorkers.

(Gill) "There are hundreds and hundreds of wells, I think the number is around 1,700 wells in the past year or so drilled in the Marcellus, and they’ve been drilled very safely.

(Chanatry) Drilled on land owned by residents who have lucrative deals with the gas companies.

(Clark) "I hope to lease this property and hopefully well hit gas and get a royalty."

(Chanatry) Larry Clark is standing on a hillside in New Yorks Chenango Valley, looking down on some of his 125 acres, a late day sun illuminating the farm fields. Clark has raised dairy cows in this pastoral setting for 40 years, but now he’s ready to cash in.

(Clark) "I’ve either got to sell this farm or have a lease because I can’t pay taxes forever."

(Chanatry) Leases have gone for a one-time payment of as much as $3,000 an acre, plus royalties of at least 12 and a half percent. This could help stop the long economic decline in a region that’s been suffering, says Richard Lasky, who owns 300 acres himself.

(Lasky) "The only hope if one wants to keep New York state as a viable area is, at this moment, the gas. The gas will generate lots of jobs, lots of money."

(Chanatry) More than 20,000 jobs and $2 billion dollars in economic activity every year, according to the gas industry.

But opponents are worried about the millions of gallons of fracking fluid left behind in the shale.

(Menapace) "The stakes are too high."

(Chanatry) Mary Menapace is an obstetrics nurse turned anti-fracking activist.

(Menapace) "You take millions of gallons of fresh water and you turn it into millions of gallons of toxic waste, and to me that seems like the stupidest thing I had ever heard of."

(Chanatry) Menapace is sitting in her kitchen, right near Skaneateles Lake, one of the Finger Lakes and the unfiltered source of water for the city of Syracuse. Menapace is afraid either the fracking fluid or the gas itself could get into her drinking water.

(Menapace) "As far as I know they can’t fix an aquifer once its polluted."

(Chanatry) Water has been polluted elsewhere. In Pennsylvania 32 families in one town are getting replacement water from the gas company, and gas bubbles have been reported in the Susquehanna River.

The industry says drinking water is- protected by thick layers of rock along with steel and cement well casings. Still, Brad Gill of the Independent Oil and Gas Association acknowledges accidents can occur.

(Gill) "We’re not baking cookies. We are drilling thousands of feet into the earth for a flammable substance. At the end of the day, it’s all about risk management. What is the risk? What is the result of any accident?"

(Chanatry) The EPA and New York State are assessing the risk. For now, New York has in effect put the drilling on hold.  

For VPR News, I’m David Chanatry

Northeast Environmental Reporting is made possible, in part, by a grant from United Technologies.

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