NY’s Cuomo demands answers about fracking — and so does the rest of America


These days, when it comes to the debate about hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, for natural gas, you hear far too many stories like this one about a woman named Lorrie Squibb out of Flower Mound, Tex. Squibb was a longtime resident of the Lone Star State who moved to Michigan two years ago, but started feeling very ill right after she relocated.

“I am a stay at home Mom so there is no explanation about where I could have contracted this,” Squibb said from her Michigan home.

People still living in the area surrounding Squibb’s old neighborhood in Wellington Estates in Flower Mound are concerned about possible cancer clusters, after a string of leukemia cases in children and breast cancer in women.

Residents wonder if the danger isn’t just down the street, where there is natural gas drilling in the Barnett Shale. State air testing near some natural gas facilities revealed high levels of benzene, a cancer-causing toxin.

“People are getting sick and it doesn’t matter what color they are or their economic situation,” Sharon Wilson, organizer with the Texas Oil & Gas Accountability Project, said.

What happened to Lorrie Squibb — and some of her neighbors — is tragic. The thing is, it’s very difficult to establish a definitive link between her cancer and the toxic air that she undoubtedly breathed near the fracking site in Flower Mound. Texas state officials who looked into an apparent cancer cluster in her former community and in other counties around the state where natural gas drillers have been active did find somewhat elevated cancer rates, but claimed they couldn’t prove that fracking was the cause.

It’s the same scenario you see playing out all over the country these days, from California to Oklahoma to Ohio and Pennsylvania. The booming natural gas industry claims that fracking is a perfectly safe way to harvest a cleaner-burning fuel than American coal or imported oil — creating jobs, lowering energy bills, and making the U.S. less dependent on foreign sources. But the people who actually live near these sites say it’s often a nightmare — that people are getting sick, that pets and livestock are dying, that they’re breathing in noxious odors and that their drinking water suddenly tastes funny or looks brown or maybe even catches on fire with a match!

The answer seems clear. In America’s rush to accommodate Big Oil and Gas, we’ve gotten it backwards. We simply can’t allow an unaccountable, greed-driven industry to pockmark our countryside willy-nilly with their rigs, until we can guarantee that public that drillers know and are using the absolute best practices, that they are not dumping toxins into our streams and into the air we breathe, and that they are not making people or animals sick in their haste to make a quick profit.

That’s why I’m delighted by the recent turn of events in New York State, where just a few short weeks ago it seemed all but guaranteed that a business-friendly Democratic governor, Andrew Cuomo, was on the brink of lifting a short-term moratorium and allowing the fracking boom to come to the Marcellus Shale territory across the southern tier of the Empire State. But what happened next in New York was heart-warming. People spoke out, from flashy celebrities like Lady Gaga to simple, apolitical farmers, and they pleaded with the state to reverse course. And government appears to have listened. Now Gov. Cuomo wants an in-depth state health study:

What was astounding was the governor admitting, “I think it will be a more thorough review, and it will be a stronger review to withstand a legal challenge … a more defensible review.” That’s tantamount to admitting that four years of preparing the environmental review leading up to regs wasn’t done well enough. It’s an open signal to legal challengers to come after the state, when the time is right. The governor and his staff have assumed all along that lawsuits against the fracking regs are inevitable.

His admission, by the way, means that a health review better have some substance to it. That takes time. More time means a rule-making Nov. 29 deadline will likely be missed. That means no regs can be in place much before late spring next year at the earliest. Without regs, no fracking, even a pilot project.

So what is the confluence of factors that appear to be behind the governor’s about-face on plunging ahead with fracking?

The people. There’s no question that Andrew Cuomo and his advisers seriously underestimated the fervor and depth of the opposition to any form of fracking in this state, even as President Obama and Republican challenger Mitt Romney embrace natural gas drilling as a wonderful thing.

Hopefully Gov. Cuomo’s common sense approach will catch on, because up until now, government has been steamrolled on these matters by Big Oil and Gas. Just today, a federal report acknowledged what is increasingly clear, that we’re doing a lousy job regulating the out-of-control fracking industry:

 Congressional auditors conclude in new reports that the Environmental Protection Agency faces big hurdles overseeing a U.S. oil-and-gas drilling boom that’s creating “unknown” long-term health risks.

For example:

For instance, the report notes that it’s tough to inspect the large number of new well sites in Ohio, where the Utica shale play is attracting development, because EPA “generally does not receive information about new wells or their location.”

The report also describes limits on EPA’s legal authorities, as well as challenges facing other federal and state regulators.

“For example, EPA officials in headquarters and Regional offices told us that the exclusion of exploration and production waste from hazardous waste regulations under [the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act] significantly limits EPA’s role in regulating these wastes,” the report states.

In other words, the federal government doesn’t even know how many fracking wells that industry is drilling and where they are — let alone the more fundamental answers on what the pollution by-products of fracking are doing to our waterways, our atmosphere, and our bodies. That is why both other states as well as Washington would be very wise to follow the example set by New York’s Cuomo — to get real answers about fracking first, and not later, when it will be too late. We owe that to Lorrie Squibb and to thousands of other Americans now in harm’s way.

To read about how Lorrie Squibb became ill while living near a fracking rig in Texas, check out: http://www.the33tv.com/news/kdaf-calls-to-invesigate-cancer-cases-in-barnet-shale-story,0,5969894.story

To read commentary on New York Gov. Cuomo’s stunning reversal, please go to: http://www.timesunion.com/local/article/Hurry-up-and-wait-as-policy-tool-3925524.php

To find out more about the congressional reports detailing the regulatory failures on fracking, check out: http://thehill.com/blogs/e2-wire/e2-wire/261033-report-epa-struggling-to-keep-pace-with-fracking-boom

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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