The Fracking Wars: New York’s Legendary Tap Water in the Cross Hairs


New York’s tap water is legendary. It’s envied around the world for its purity, taste and abundance. Every week, billions of gallons of fresh, clean water are delivered from large pristine upstate reservoirs to the taps of millions of people across the state. But now there are plans afoot that could turn New York’s award-winning water into a cautionary tale.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) bowed to political pressure last week, lifting a statewide ban on the controversial natural-gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. In so doing, the first-year governor, and former state attorney general, opens the Empire State to one of the most explosive and lucrative sectors of the energy industry – natural gas drilling (or fracking). But many, including myself, believe Cuomo is making a deal with the devil, pointing to the fact that fracking has been tied to an array of alarming environmental and human health risks, including severe drinking water contamination.

As many of you know by now, fracking involves injecting large volumes of water – mixed with sand and a brew of toxic chemicals – deep into the ground under extremely high pressure. The pressurized fluid breaks up shale formations and releases natural gas and oil for drilling companies to speed to market. The highly controversial process can contaminate drinking water wells, aquifers and reservoirs as well as rivers and streams with carcinogenic fracking chemicals, like benzene, and deeply buried natural occurring radioactive material, such as radium. Reports of exploding drinking water wells and flammable tap water continue to surface in fracking communities across the country. And a study released by Duke University in May scientifically ties fracking to drinking water contamination. From the study, entitled “Methane contamination of drinking water accompanying gas-well drilling and hydraulic fracturing”:

Methane concentrations were detected generally in 51 of 60 drinking-water wells (85%) across the region, regardless of gas industry operations, but concentrations were substantially higher closer to natural-gas wells. Methane concentrations were 17-times higher on average in shallow wells from active drilling and extraction areas than in wells from nonactive areas.

Even the Duke researchers were surprised by such a direct correlation. According to one of the study’s authors, biology Professor Robert Jackson: “We certainly didn’t expect to see such a strong relationship between the concentration of methane in water and the nearest gas wells. That was a real surprise.” In a handful of incidents, houses exploded after methane gas seeped into residents’ basements or wells. In Dimock, Pennsylvania, where the Duke team gathered data, some residents’ drinking water wells blew up or their water could, literally, be lit on fire.

Flying in the face of hard scientific evidence that fracking does indeed present considerable risks, New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has made this bombshell recommendation: “High-volume fracturing will be permitted on privately held lands under rigorous and effective controls.”

While being permitted on private lands, fracking will be prohibited in other areas, including the following:

High-volume fracturing would be prohibited in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds, including a buffer zone.

Drilling would be prohibited within primary aquifers and within 500 feet of their boundaries.

Surface drilling would be prohibited on state-owned land including parks, forest areas and wildlife management areas.

The question that immediately leaps to mind is: If fracking is safe for private land, why isn’t it safe for state-owned land? Is private land dispensable while public land is not? These are questions that Cuomo will need to answer sooner rather than later. And does anybody really believe “rigorous and effective controls” will ever truly be implemented and enforced? To put that much stock in our regulators – as Gov. Cuomo apparently has – you have to ignore decades of regulatory history. Traditionally, the efforts of both state and federal regulators to hold the oil and gas industry accountable have been a monumental failure. In a June 27 article, the Louisiana Weekly sheds some light on the regulatory vacuum that plagues every oil- and gas-producing state in the Union:

Last week, Tulane University law professor Oliver Houck said “the state has been reluctant to regulate any aspect of the oil and gas industry for the past 90 years.”

“What regulations and protections we enjoy have been federally imposed, often by citizen lawsuits,” he said. “But the oil and gas industry, led by our Congressional delegation, has managed to neuter much federal regulation.”

In lifting the ban on private land, Gov. Cuomo is moving in the wrong direction. For example, just last week, New Jersey’s legislature voted to ban fracking entirely across the state. On the very same day, the French Parliament imposed a countrywide ban, making France the first nation to outlaw the aggressive extraction technique. In fact, before we got to where we are today in New York, the state legislature voted to formally ban fracking, but then-Gov. David A. Paterson vetoed the bill. He put a moratorium in place until further study could be completed. And lest we forget the many legal challenges to fracking that are being leveled in many localities, earlier this month, New York’s attorney general, Eric Schneiderman, subpoenaed five of the nation’s largest natural gas drilling companies to determine if they are accurately disclosing the risks tied to fracking.

I believe it’s safe to say, the anti-fracking movement has turned up the heat.

So why would New York’s young governor push so hard against the prevailing winds? Well, for an ambitious politician like Gov. Cuomo – any politician, really – fracking is a temptation that’s exceedingly hard to resist. A New York Times article by reporters Danny Hakim and Nicholas Confessore sums up the political riches fracking has to offer:

Drilling for natural gas has been promoted because it burns more cleanly than coal and can reduce dependence on imported energy sources, and it can also bring jobs to economically battered regions of the state.

Enough said. As the U.S. economy drifts through another lethargic quarter and unemployment hovers north of 9 percent, politicians of every stripe are looking for a way – any way – to generate jobs and deliver an economic bump to their constituents. Cuomo is no exception. Jobs translate to votes. And Gov. Cuomo has the added pressure of being just across the border from the fracking bonanza now taking place in Pennsylvania, where drilling companies are aggressively exploiting the Marcellus Shale region.

Marcellus Shale stretches deep into New York – into towns and cities hit hard by the economic downturn – but has thus far been untapped due to the ban put in place by former Gov. Paterson. There’s no doubt that fracking offers what appears to be a silver bullet for many politicians. But we’ve all heard the old axiom, “When something appears to good to be true, it usually is.” Fracking certainly fits that bill. According to the NYT – and a laundry list of other news outlets – there’s a major downside:

A primary concern among environmental groups has been the leftover wastewater that can be contaminated with toxic materials buried underground, including naturally occurring radioactive elements, or carcinogens like benzene.

The problem is this: What to do with the billions of gallons of toxic wastewater fracking produces? Much of it goes straight to public water treatment plants, but most of those facilities aren’t equipped to remove radioactive contaminants (see link to my previous post below). So fracking wastewater is “treated,” and then discharged into rivers and streams (still) containing radioactive elements like radium-226 and radium-228. Those toxic materials can then find their way into drinking-water intake facilities located downstream. Did I mention that these types of treatment facilities do not have the capacity to remove radioactive material from water? They don’t. So there could be radium in the next glass of water you drink from your tap.

In closing, I would urge the good governor – and other job-hungry politicians – not to succumb to the temptation of fracking. Unfortunately, at this point in time, the benefits simply do not outweigh the potential risks. Will there come a day when fracking can be performed safely? Possibly, but we’re definitely not there yet.

Gov. Cuomo still has time to reconsider his short-sighted decision – and I sincerely hope he does. I encourage all of you to help him see the light by contacting the New York governor’s office and expressing your opposition to lifting the ban on the most dangerous industrial process to hit the American landscape in decades.

You can sign an online petition here calling on Gov. Cuomo to keep the fracking ban in place:

Read the full NYT report here:

Here’s a link to a previous post that lays out the facts about fracking:

Read my post on Duke University’s study that ties fracking to water contamination:

Read up on France’s ban on fracking:

Here’s an article on New Jersey’s recent fracking ban:

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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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