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4/2/10 Letter to DEC Commissioner Grannis Regarding Additional Natural Gas Hazards

April 2, 2010

Honorable Alexander Grannis
Department of Environmental Conservation
625 Broadway
Albany, New York 12233-0001

Dear Commissioner:

I trust you have been well since we last spoke. I respectfully write today regarding a matter that warrants your immediate, urgent attention.

As you know, the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) regarding Marcellus Shale Horizontal Hydrofracturing is based on the fundamental belief that New York’s existing oil, gas and solution mining regulations (adopted in 1992) are adequate to safeguard the environment and the public’s health.

I wrote to Governor Paterson on 11/9/09 to challenge that assertion by documenting a total of 270 pollution releases associated with oil and gas activities. Those incidents involved fires, explosions, uncontrolled wastewater spills, polluted private wells and homes that had to be evacuated due to gas intrusion. Based on those findings, I requested the draft SGEIS be withdrawn and revised.

On 12/8/09, Assemblyman William L. Parment wrote to you regarding “learning what steps the Department took in response to the incidences.” In your 12/30/09 response you wrote: “I welcome this opportunity to provide you with the facts which, in my view, demonstrate the success of DEC’s Spill Response and Oil & Gas regulatory programs.”

Your letter reports that “only ten of the 270 incidents occurred during well drilling activity…;” “Only 44 of the incidents occurred at natural gas production sites…;” “40 of the 270 spills … occurred at abandoned well sites; abandoned wells have since been plugged at 11 of those sites;” and “17 of the 270 spills …occurred at natural gas storage facilities, most of these were brine leaks or brine tank overflows.”

You also argued that these problems were relatively few in number compared to the thousands of oil and gas wells DEC has permitted. You concluded by writing: “Objective analysis also shows that when problems do occur, they are promptly and effectively addressed by DEC’s Spill Response and Oil & Gas regulatory programs and staff [emphasis added].”

I write today because I do not believe your response refutes the fact that the 270 uncontrolled pollution releases document serious regulatory shortcomings. I also will dispute your belief that gas and oil problems are “promptly and effectively addressed.”

Natural Gas Problems Not Reported in DEC Spills Database

All of the 270 oil and gas releases I identified in November were documented in DEC’s hazardous materials spills database.

I subsequently learned the spills database does not include natural gas problems reported to health authorities in the three counties with the highest number of oil and gas wells in New York State. I also learned DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources does not report all oil and gas releases to the Division of Spills.

I write today to document dozens of additional natural gas concerns that have neither been fully investigated nor remediated. These incidents reinforce grave concerns about the adequacy of DEC’s gas drilling regulations and provide further documentation that the draft SGEIS is inadequate and must be withdrawn.

Chautauqua County Natural Gas Incidents

Assemblyman Parment is from Chautauqua County, where approximately 20 percent of all oil and gas wells permitted by DEC are located (5,040 wells compared with a statewide total of 25,900 oil and gas wells). I believe the natural gas problems experienced in that county dramatically illustrate the need for more stringent DEC regulations.

I obtained through the Freedom of Information Law (FOIL) a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between DEC and local health authorities that notes: “first-instance visits for water well ‘contamination’ complaints” … “must be referred to the local County Health Authorities … in Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua counties.” See Attachment A.

I also obtained information regarding a total of 135 natural gas and oil incidents reported to the Chautauqua County Department of Health as a result of the MOU.

Attachment B details more than 50 natural gas concerns involving brine-contaminated private water wells, homes impacted by methane gas intrusion, ignitable drinking water and improper disposal of natural gas drilling wastewater. None of these incidents is included in DEC’s spills database.

Between 1983 and 2008, a total of 19 water well incidents referencing “gas” were determined to involve “confirmed brine impacts,” “methane contamination,” or “well possibly impacted by brine.”

In addition, there were 39 water well incidents involving concerns, such as “ignitable water,” “gas in water,” and “brown color of water and particles in it since gas well fractured on adjoining property” where health department investigations were “inconclusive.” These incidents reportedly involved inadequate laboratory testing that did not analyze for methane or no testing was conducted at all.

Levant, NY

I have attached extensive information regarding major methane gas intrusion problems involving Mr. Tim Short circa 1983 in Levant, NY. His home reportedly was impacted with explosive levels of methane. His well was impacted by methane and exploded. His drinking water was ignitable. As a result of these hazards, Mr. Short eventually abandoned his home. See Attachment C.

The Division of Mineral Resources believed Mr. Short’s problems were caused by “natural phenomena,” possibly marsh gas. According to local newspaper coverage, the Attorney General’s Environmental Protection Bureau used “radiocarbon age-determination testing” to determine the gas on Mr. Short’s property was of “petrochemical origin.” His problems were never resolved.

Chautauqua County Department of Health Concerns and DEC Mineral Resources

William T. Boria, Water Resource Specialist with the Chautauqua County Health Department, wrote a 7/30/04 letter regarding “Impacts of Gas Well Drilling to Drinking Water Wells.” See Attachment D. He noted:

“A representative I spoke with at the NYS DEC Division of Minerals insists that the potential for drinking water well contamination by oil and gas well drilling is almost non-existent. However, this Department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling activities.”

“They can be categorized into two groups: surface water contamination caused by above ground drilling-related activities, and suspected ground water contamination of private drinking water wells associated with drilling and hydro-fracturing.”

“Those complaints that were reported are probably just a fraction of actual problems that occurred.”

EMC Comments Regarding GEIS Adopted in 1992

The Chautauqua County Environmental Management Council wrote to DEC in June 1988 that:

“In a number of instances in Chautauqua County, property owners have been given different responses when calling in reports of difficulties. In the case of Tim Short, tens of thousands of dollars were spent trying to prove industry did not cause his problems – the house still stands empty.

“In the case of Rhodes in Ellington, New York, people from NYSDEC agreed with the property owners that their problems were related to gas and oil drilling but the State could not tell which well was causing the problem.

“These and other people have had problems. NONE OF THESE PEOPLE LEASED THEIR LAND FOR GAS AND OIL DRILLING (emphasis in the original). They received no direct benefit and only very limited indirect benefit.

“Through a number of local hearings held by NYSDEC, representatives of Chautauqua County have spoken about the innocent third party that is damaged by the activity of the gas and oil industry – this damage may include water wells with gas or taste. It may mean a building with gas buildup in it. The NYSDEC has stated these people can get relief in the courts by private action. If the State cannot identify the offending well with all its skills and resources, how can a small home owner take on the task? These third party innocent damaged people should be protected. They deserve relief from the acts of industry. It is a fact that people are harmed by the actions of industry and there is no mechanism in the GEIS to propose a mitigation of their problem other than the responses we have been given that they may go to court with a private action.”

These grave concerns regarding DEC’s systematic failure to prevent, investigate or eliminate natural gas hazards were voiced more than 25 years ago when DEC was adopting its current natural gas regulations. See Attachment E. Those concerns remain equally valid today.

Allegany County Department of Health Information for Andover, NY

I obtained through FOIL a letter from the Allegany County Department of Health regarding a water supply well owned by Mr. David Eddy on Trapping Brook Road in Andover, NY. Mr. Eddy’s well reportedly was impacted in early 2009 “… allegedly after U. S. Energy had done some gas well ‘fracturing’ (drilling) approximately 1,000 feet from his well, he began having water problems that included ‘muddy water’, ‘oil’ in the water, and a ‘gas smell’ to the water.” The letter notes that Mr. Eddy contacted the DEC (POC: Brian Jandrew). See Attachment F.

I also obtained a 6/15/09 letter from U. S. Energy to DEC. See Attachment G. It reports:

“3) May 19, 2009 Culligan contacted U. S. Energy and communicated their test indicated trace amounts of oil and recommended the installation of a carbon water treatment system.
U. S. Energy instructed Culligan to proceed with the installation.

“5) May 20, 2009 U. S. Energy instructed Culligan to install a water system and agreed to pay for the installation and maintenance of the system until periodic testing proved the water was not impacted.

“6) U. S. Energy has put Mr. Eddy and his family in a hotel several nights during the initial impact. U. S. Energy has been and continues to supply the home with Culligan bottled water.

“7) U. S. Energy has offered Mr. Eddy compensation which he has refused.”

It is inexplicable why this incident is not included in DEC’s spills database, particularly because petroleum was reported in Mr. Eddy’s drinking water. His home reportedly was contaminated with such high levels of methane that U. S. Energy paid for his family to stay in a motel. No spill number evidently was issued for this matter. His problems have never been resolved.

Inadequate Reporting of Natural Gas Problems by Division of Mineral Resources

I learned DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources does not report to the Division of Spills all of the natural gas problems it identifies. I obtained through FOIL a MOU that exists between DEC’s Division of Spills and its Division of Mineral Resources regarding that matter. See Attachment H. According to that MOU:

“1. Mineral Resources will handle normal spills at the well head, pipeline to the stock tank and the stock tank on the lease property.

“2. The spill unit will handle any spills off the lease site or past the stock tank.

“4. For major spills, even on a lease site, Mineral Resources will contact the spill unit.

“5. Mineral Resources will handle brine spills.”

Erin, NY

Concerned homeowners brought to my attention natural gas wastewater problems in Erin, NY that they reported to DEC. See Attachment I. The Division of Mineral Resources identified violations at multiple gas well sites, including an “off-site” release of “salty over-spray” verified to have run “over pasture land and into a nearby dry stream channel.” This problem was evidently not reported to the Spills Division and no spill number was issued.

In addition, “…staff discovered that water from the Meade location pit was trucked to the Wholeben #1 site for disposal/storage on July 13, 2005. Staff observed this transported water being stored at the Wholeben location in a pit with a liner that was ripped and non-functional.” No spill number was evidently issued for this matter.

South Geneva, NY

I earlier documented that Chesapeake-Appalachia reportedly compensated a homeowner in South Geneva, NY for “damages” associated with a private water well that may have been impacted when a natural gas well adjoining the home was hydofracked. See Attachment J. DEC was reportedly unaware of this problem until I publicly released information about the matter. No spill number was evidently issued for this incident.


DEC has never provided detailed, publicly-accessible data to document its assertion that existing gas drilling regulations are adequate to safeguard New York’s environment and the public health. In contrast, the information I have publicly released supports the conclusion that the existing 1992 regulations are fundamentally inadequate and require extensive revision.

On 12/10/09, I submitted a FOIL request to DEC for "a digital copy of all oil and natural gas spills identified, investigated or managed by the Division of Mineral Resources..." On 1/6/10, DEC provided a total of 15 spills out of the 270 oil and gas releases I identified on 11/9/09. That is less than six percent of the problems I identified.

DEC also noted: “Information regarding minor ‘spills’ at sites inspected by Minerals staff are not entered in a searchable database and therefore cannot be located without more specific facility information. Note that ‘spills’ not considered to be minor by the Division of Mineral Resources are referred to the Spills Unit.”

The natural gas problems I bring to your attention today cannot be considered minor, yet not one is included in DEC’s spills database.

In conclusion, I believe it is beyond dispute that DEC lacks the effective means to report, assess and remediate oil and gas hazards in order to safeguard New York’s environment and public health. Citizens, local health officials and advocacy groups have voiced concerns about that problem for literally decades, but to no avail.

It is imperative that DEC immediately withdraw its draft SGEIS, reopen discussions regarding the scope of that regulatory proceeding and revise its draft to respond to the natural gas hazards I have documented as well as other shortcomings identified in the comments I and so many others submitted to DEC.

Unless and until these concerns are resolved with regard to all permitted oil and gas wells, the current de facto moratorium on Marcellus Shale horizontal hydrofracturing must be maintained. I similarly request DEC to withhold issuing any gas drilling permits pending that outcome.

With all due respect, DEC’s failure to require oil and gas problems to be cleaned up in strict compliance with applicable New York law is part and parcel of its long-standing, systematic failure to clean up:

  • 483 waterbodies listed on the national 303(d) Impaired Waterbody Registry, including Southern Cayuga Lake, which has exceeded clean up standards for more than 40 years;
  • more than 22,000 leaking gasoline tanks and spills that do not meet clean up standards and threaten drinking water and water quality all over New York; and
  • 593 Inactive Hazardous Waste Disposal Sites that are known to be "Significant threat to the public health or environment - action required."

At a minimum, it will take decades to alleviate and eliminate those problems. That is why it is critical for DEC to make sure that Marcellus shale gas drilling hazards do not exacerbate New York’s existing pollution threats.

I trust you will find my letter self-explanatory, but please contact me if you have any questions I might be able to answer. Thank you for considering my request.

Very truly yours,

Walter Hang
215 North Cayuga Street
Ithaca, NY 14850

Cc: Honorable Judith Enck, US EPA Region 2 Administrator
      Honorable Michael Bloomberg, Mayor, City of New York
      Honorable Barbara Lifton, Representative, 125th Assembly District
      Honorable William Parment, Representative, 150th Assembly District
      Honorable James Gennaro, City Council Member, District 24

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