Cuomo would allow fracking in struggling areas of southwestern New York

Governor Andrew M. Cuomo’s misguided administration is offering a plan to permit the deadly drilling method known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” in portions of several struggling New York counties along the Pennsylvania border, providing these communities express “support for the technology.” That support for technology generally comes from the generous buy-offs by natural gas companies for the land of near-bankrupt farmers or townships. It’s misery’s profit.

A senior official at the state Department of Environmental Conservation and others who know the administration’s strategy, would limit drilling to the deepest areas of the Marcellus Shale rock formation, which has been described as the “Saudi Arabia of Natural Gas.” Theoretically, this could cut down the risk of groundwater contamination. Unfortunately, once people get a taste of the money for their land, they forget how easily the fracking of earth and rocks pour in toxic chemicals, releasing the buried natural gas that adds to the poisoning of the water.

Even within that southwest New York region—primarily Broome, Chemung, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga Counties—drilling would be permitted only in towns that agree to it and would be banned in Catskill Park, aquifers and national historic districts. The same rules of disaster apply. In fact, “fracking” was exempted by the Bush-Cheney Energy Policy Act of 2005 from the United States’ basic environmental regulations, including the Safe Drinking Water Act and Clean Air Act. The dynamic duo knew exactly how to profit from human misery to enrich corporations.

Across the country, in states like New York and Pennsylvania, the Delaware River Basin and New York City’s watershed in the Catskills, where the fracking is slated to take place, or is already happening, the waters are endangered. Fracking the Delaware River Basin would threaten the potable water supply for 17 million people in Philadelphia, New York City and New Jersey. So the stakes to bail out struggling farmers or townships seem small in comparison.

Of course, most officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because the deliberations in the administration are continuing, i.e., deals are being made in the backroom. If truth be told, “Natural gas companies have installed hundreds of thousands of rigs in 34 states, drilling huge shale fields, tight sands of coal bed seams containment gas deposits trapped by rock.”

This information comes from a review I wrote in 2010, Welcome to Gasland: It could kill you. The review was of the HBO Documentary Gasland, by writer director Josh Fox, who travelled through the United States, filming “fracking” disasters in 34 states. Fox got started on it when he himself was offered $100,000 for a piece of property he owns in the Delaware Water Gap area. He calls it “hush money” and he’s right.

The strategy for the Cuomo plan hasn’t been finalized, and details could change, but it has been taking shape over several months in the dark. It would be contingent on fracking receiving final approval from state regulators, a step that is not a done deal yet but is expected to happen later this summer.

I say that because Department of Environmental Conservation regulators last year showed initial support for the drilling process around the state, with exceptions for environmentally sensitive areas like New York City’s upstate watershed. I think DEC is being naïve in thinking that fracking in any context is containable, given the power and money of the gas companies. Once you let the fox in the henhouse, you can say goodbye to the chickens.

Again, consider what I wrote in my review. “Considering there are approximately 450,000 wells in the U.S.,” the HBO documentary filmmaker Josh Fox estimates that “40 trillion gallons of chemically infused water have been created by the drilling, much of it left seeping or injected into the ground.”

“Now the problem is that this infused water mingles with clean water, inevitably poisoning it, making it dangerous for humans to drink, causing everything from headaches to cancers and other lethal diseases, affecting men, women, children, even animals and plant life which withers and dies off as well.” It gives new meaning to ‘Don’t Drink the Water.’

“But the real tragedy is that these victims, these people are tied to the land by generations of family farming or ranching or both. They have no other place or country to go to, no other way of earning a living. And why should they, for the sins of the rampant gas and money-guzzling drillers? Also, if anyone is actually able to secure compensation from the gas companies, they have to sign non-disclosure agreements that prevent them from bringing lawsuits or of telling others of their experiences with natural gas drilling.” More Hush Money!

Perhaps that’s why since Cuomo’s announcement his administration has been deluged with tens of thousands of e-mails and letters mostly objecting to the process, which is better known as fracking. This has led to large numbers of protesters turning into a frequent presence at the capitol.

Cuomo’s administration, now trying to acknowledge the economic needs of the rural upstate area, is also honoring the opposition expressed in communities, but limiting the ire of environmentalists, worried that fracking could contaminate groundwater and lead to other hazards. The administration had initially expected to allow 75 hydrofracking permits in the first year, but now expects to reduce that to 50. It’s a policy of something for everybody to placate protestors but still throw gas companies more than a bone of hope.

The old chestnut of job creation has been brought in as well, i.e., “The development of natural gas will create jobs, and power trucks and factories that are cleaner and cheaper, proving that we don’t have to choose between our environment and our economy.” This hasn’t happened so far, governor, so why should it begin now?

Concerns justifiably persist about the chemicals used in the process. Last year, for instance, federal regulators linked fracking to a contaminated water supply in part of central Wyoming. Fox reported on fracking disasters in the 34 states he visited and filmed. To boot, he reported that the approval of “authorities” came from them being too often in cahoots with the drillers. The almighty buck holds sway over the health of millions of people in the US when it comes to fracking.

Fox filmed families living in a rural Colorado community who could literally light the water flowing from their taps with a cigarette lighter. That’s how much gas was in the flow. It actually exploded in the sink surrounding the kitchen faucet, singeing the hairs on one man’s arms. But we are not talking about one or two cases here. We are talking about entire communities, mostly rural, terrorized by their own water supplies; untold numbers of people who have to import huge tanks of water and filter it to stay alive by avoiding poisoned wells. If this is not a huge conspiracy of corruption, then I’ll eat Fox’s film, frame by frame.

In New York, while more than 100 communities have passed moratoriums or bans on fracking, a few dozen in the Southern Tier, a row of counties directly north of Pennsylvania, and in western New York have passed resolutions in favor of the drilling process. Somebody should warn them, at the very least, that they do this at their own peril—and show them the Fox documentary.

Though the innocent see this as a way to save their property, fracking mostly becomes a terrible liability. That should be a real caution to landowners supporting fracking. Unfortunately, residents of towns in New York and Pennsylvania have already leased thousands of acres to a drilling company. Better to lose your land and start over than lose your health or your life, I would advise them.

The Marcellus Shale, described earlier as “the Saudi Arabia of natural gas,” is a rock formation that stretches from the Appalachian Mountains into the central and western parts of New York. State regulators believe that by limiting drilling to areas where the Marcellus Shale is at least 2,000 feet deep, risks of contaminating the water supply with toxic chemicals will be reduced. Regulators would require drillers to maintain a 1,000-foot buffer between water sources and the top of the shale formation. I repeat, once residents let the fox in the henhouse, they’ll be eating the bones for dinner, and choking on them. Take heed!

That’s why Rob Moore, executive director of Environmental Advocates of New York, said “We recognize that gas is going to be part of our energy mix and it’s preferable to other types of fuels that are out there, so it’s not really an option to say ‘no way’ to natural gas. But we’re not in a rush to see this resource extracted in New York.” Mr. Moore called the Cuomo plan, which is being developed by the Department of Environmental Conservation, an “interesting idea.” I call it “an unnatural disaster.”

Moore added, “I’d say it’s encouraging that D.E.C. continues to look at these issues very thoroughly and carefully, but there are a lot of questions about how this would roll out,” he said. “Can communities that want to opt in handle it? Is there enough emergency response in the region to handle well explosions? Spill response?”

Fortunately, a coalition of lesser-known groups opposes fracking under any circumstances and plans further demonstrations. Right on!

Sandra Steingraber, the founder of an umbrella group called New Yorkers Against Fracking, said in a statement, “Sending a polluting industry into our most economically impoverished communities is a violation of environmental justice. Partitioning our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation is a shameful idea.” Brava!

Acting as a spokesman for such groups’ frustration, the actor Mark Ruffalo stepped in and become the state’s highest profile opponent of fracking. For instance, he urged his more than 200,000 Twitter followers to send a message to the governor: “Let’s keep his phones tied up all day.” Good for Ruffalo.

As you would expect, critics have been offset by the industry’s lobbying (think money) muscle. Ten companies or trade groups that lobbied for fracking and other issues of concern to the natural gas industry spent a hearty $4.5 million lobbying just in Albany over the last three years, according to an analysis prepared by the New York Public Interest Research Group.

James Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, claimed the Cuomo proposal being considered by now is seen as “a positive step.” Not to most people with a brain in their head. It is flirting with serious danger. People should be encouraged to learn from fracking mistakes not be encouraged to walk in and worsen them for personal or corporate profit, which in the long run they’ll pay for in health and life.

Smith added, “We expect when the D.E.C. has completed its review, the folks that make these decisions will be convinced that it can be done safely,” he added. “It’s good news for the farmers and other landowners in the Southern Tier, and small businesses that have wanted this to occur, and municipalities and local governments that will reap the benefits of the taxes that are going to be collected. And it’s good news for our members.”

Of course, that’s what he expects. The fix is in. And all the deadbeats with back taxes to be paid will jump on the bandwagon with him. That is until the fracked gas starts hitting the fan. Then they’ll be choking on it.

Jerry Mazza is a freelance writer, life-long resident of New York City. An EBook version of his book of poems “State Of Shock,” on 9/11 and its after effects is now available at Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com. He has also written hundreds of articles on politics and government as Associate Editor of Intrepid Report (formerly Online Journal). Reach him at gvmaz@verizon.net.

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