Monday, February 1, 2010

We Shale Overcome, Together

The City has definitively spoken out against any natural gas drilling in its watershed which involves the contemplated hydrofracking process.  Some, but not all, of its spokesmen have also urged that no such drilling should take place in upstate regions, either. As a part-time resident of both places, I  fervently  hope they mean that.  Given the powerful forces that have been aligned to make this “done deal” a  reality, it’s essential that the City and upstate opponents maintain a common front until they both get what they want and need.

The watershed.  Almost all the talk about watershed protection has centered on buffer zones, and how big they need to be.  I believe buffer zones will not be enough;  they can’t guarantee the degree of safety the City has said it requires.  Out west, it has been shown that surface waters have  transported contaminants long distances from wellsites, distances much greater than any of the protective boundaries for the watershed (no more than five miles) that have been discussed.  All water is connected, it has been said, and our state has more of it than perhaps any other.  Flooding is common within the Marcellus region, and low-lying bodies such as reservoirs are instant targets of stormwater, plus anything it has swept along with it.  That can include chemical spills and overflows from waste pits on distant hills.

Underground contamination is no less a threat.  Not even water experts can predict with accuracy the movements of  the voluminous, chemical-laden waste water (some 70 percent of used fracking fluids) that operators do not pump back to the surface.  Its migration through faults and seams,  natural or induced, has  no timetable.  Migration could occur even long after all drilling operations cease.

In the event the watershed region  proves to be treasure trove of gas, then the margins of any protective zone for the City’s water supply will predictably become jammed with as many wellpads as the law allows.  The DEC’s steadfast refusal to analyze environmental impacts cumulatively will virtually assure that. The potential for wastewater contamination is such that, for the level of protection it requires, the City must demand a region-wide ban on the chemical hydrofracking process. Now, owing to recent revelations of  high radioactivity in the Marcellus Shale, see the 2008 OGAP report, it may need to demand more than that.  The health risks posed by gas drilling in radioactive rock may not be abated solely through the elimination of hydrofracking .  The OGAP report states that gas production operations can concentrate naturally-occurring radioactive materials (“NORM”) through changes in temperature and pressure, thereby releasing toxicity that would otherwise be dormant. A ProPublica article has reported that radioactivity is particularly high in the New York Marcellus. If the watershed region is high in NORM, then the City’s concerns may need to go beyond hydrofracking. 

Both advocates for the watershed and upstate activists need to insist on much better protection for the City’s water than a buffer zone offers.  There should be a ban on drilling throughout the region at least until the known toxic threats can be controlled and the DEC can demonstrate that it is able, and also willing, to control them.  If the City should  go off satisfied with anything less, we will all be sorry, and that will be especially true for the residents of the largely rural Marcellus area.   For them to be able to preserve, not their water alone, but their quality of life, their livelihoods,  and the health of whole upstate communities, they will need the continuing power of the City’s voice of support.

Upstate communities.  I choose to believe that City officials have spoken out for protection for upstate aquifers  not purely out of self-interest, but out of  an appreciation of the terrible burden that the state is placing on unsophisticated communities in the name of energy development.  Water contamination is only one of many threats.  Cash-strapped local governments and their citizens are totally unprepared for large-scale air and soil pollution, for constant noise, for (night) light pollution, for the fragmentation and flattening of their landscape, or for the prodigious impacts on their roads and weak infrastructure that are in the offing.  The survival of rural towns will mean adapting to boom-bust economics, getting by on short-term money gluts and population spikes while watching their long-term assets – revenues derived from property taxes, agriculture, fishing, sporting, and tourism - decline. Some of these traditional assets may disappear entirely. 

 The economic picture for the Marcellus region and most of the people in it is, in short, looking uglier by the day, eroding any credibility in the gas industry’s unsecured  promises of prosperity.  The new wealth of landowners and retailers will not brighten the picture, because the rich won’t linger in a damaged place;  they will take their money and run. For the rest,  resistance to gas drilling as championed by the State is growing, and can no longer be dismissed as NIMBY sentiment.  It is something that we, as communities both large and small, simply cannot afford. 

City and country folk, keep up the fight!

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