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New York Marcellus Shale Campaign 2009 - 2017

Plans to frack by liquid gas, not water, still alive in NY in Tioga County

ALBANY - Gov. Andrew Cuomo and his top commissioners braced for lawsuits when they announced plans to ban large-scale hydraulic fracturing in late 2014.

A once highly-touted plan to frack a gas well in Tioga County using propane rather than water remains a non-starter after two and a half years, although supporters have not given up.

A group of landowners, Tioga Energy Partners, have been pursuing a permit since July 2015 to develop shale gas wells on their properties in the Town of Barton. The state’s ban on high volume hydraulic fracking does not apply to propane fracks, according to the group.

The state Department of Environmental Conservation has not disagreed with that premise, although the agency’s demand for more information has effectively stalled the project.

Just south of the intersection of Halsey Valley and South Hill roads, the Snyder well would use a liquid propane system instead of a water-based chemical solution to generate hydraulic pressure to fracture the shale and release gas. Both systems use sand as a “proppant” to hold open minute fissures in the bedrock.

A portion of land in the Town of Barton, near Tyler Hollow Road, sits near the site of the proposed natural gas well. The gas collection will take place beneath a 53-acre plot. This photo was taken in August 2016.
(Photo: KELLY GAMPEL / Staff Photo)

Due to explosion risks, propane fracks — also known as “gas fracks” — typically use robotics to keep workers out of the “hot zone” during operations. The technology is still developing and has not been widely used, especially in places where water is available.

Linda Collart, DEC’s regional mineral resources supervisor, stated the agency needs more details to determine “if this relatively unique fracturing technology that has not heretofore been subject to a full environmental analysis has the potential to cause significant adverse environmental impacts.”

In a Notice of Incomplete Application on April 15, 2016, Collart requested information on safety and emergency protocols, truck traffic, storage, equipment specifications, waste controls, emissions and many other aspects of the project.

The group has yet to satisfy the requirements, said Kevin Frisbie, president of the Tioga County Farm Bureau and one of the landowners. Even if the permit is completed to the state’s satisfaction, the project may require an independent environmental review.

“It’s time consuming and very technical,” Frisbie said about the permit process. “In a perfect world, there’s no reason it couldn’t happen. But it’s so political and there are so many players involved, there’s no telling.”

Frisbie’s idea of a perfect world is vastly different than those who oppose shale gas development due to environmental and public health concerns.

In their view, using propane is even more reckless than using water to frack wells because it adds the risk of fire and explosion to other health and environmental issues at the root of New York’s fracking ban. These range from risks to drinking water supplies to ongoing emissions from gas production.

“We are against fossil fuel development for many reasons,” said Walter Hang, an activist from Ithaca who participated in the landmark fight for New York’s fracking ban. Hang agrees that the propane frack would likely fall outside the ban, which was enacted three years ago on December 17.

“The governor’s so-called fracking ban turns out to be incredibly limited,” Hang said. “It needs a clearer definition of fracking.”

When the Barton project was announced in the summer of 2016, drilling proponents were keen on proving the viability of the Utica and Marcellus shales in New York. Since then, a prolonged gas glut in Pennsylvania has suppressed prices and made the viability of any new drilling questionable.

Economics aside, however, the Tioga proposal could present a legal and regulatory test for alternative methods to tap the Marcellus and Utica shales that become relevant in the future.

Adam Schultz, attorney for the Tioga landowners, said the application review has taken “a long time, but [is]not necessarily out of the ordinary.”

‘Fractivists’ Increase Pressure on Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders in New York

Hillary Clinton last week in Purchase, N.Y.
Credit Hilary Swift for The New York Times

A nasty row that erupted between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders over oil and gas industry donors last week is catapulting the issue of climate change into the race for the Democratic presidential nomination as it moves to New York, where an army of activists upstate is driven by opposition to drilling.

Mrs. Clinton has moved steadily left on the issue, under pressure from Mr. Sanders and his progressive allies, but she continues to come under assault, posing new challenges for her as the race moves to more liberal Northeastern states.

Last week, her mask of composure slipped when she angrily replied to a Greenpeace activist in Purchase, N.Y., “I am so sick of the Sanders campaign lying about me.”

Climate change is a powerful issue for voters in the Democratic base almost everywhere. But it has especially inspired grass-roots progressives in upstate New York, who fought — and won — a yearslong battle against fracking for natural gas.

Even after Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned fracking statewide in 2014, many activists — who call themselves fractivists — remain on the front lines of climate fights, and many are skeptical about Mrs. Clinton because of views she held in the Obama administration and earlier, as a New York senator from 2001 to 2008.

Concerned about her prospects upstate, she plans a heavy schedule of campaigning in the region before the April 19 primary, realizing she can no longer count on voters there as confidently as when she earned their support in her two Senate races, when she focused largely on economic issues.

“We now have literally thousands of fractivists who are battle-tested, who understand the politics of these issues,” said Walter Hang, an activist in Ithaca, N.Y. “And they have zero inclination to give away their vote without firm commitments.”

Both the Clinton and Sanders campaigns are said to have studied the progressive Democratic primary challenge to Mr. Cuomo two years ago by Zephyr Teachout, an unknown law professor who won a surprising 33 percent by challenging Mr. Cuomo from the left, partly by highlighting her staunch opposition to fracking.

Ms. Teachout carried counties on the Pennsylvania border and in the Finger Lakes region, where grass-roots anti-fracking groups mobilized voters.

The fracking battle is over, but the activism remains. Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are frustrated that climate activists are skeptical after she rolled out an ambitious renewable energy plan last year, more aggressive than Mr. Obama’s Clean Power Plan.

On Sunday, Mrs. Clinton defended her record on climate issues in Congress and as secretary of state, and said the Sanders campaign’s claims had been debunked. “I feel sorry sometimes for the young people who, you know, believe this,” she said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” “They don’t do their own research.”

Supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders at a campaign event on Saturday in Eau Claire, Wis.
Credit Eric Thayer for The New York Times

Since the start of the campaign, Mrs. Clinton has moved strikingly to the left on climate issues, including opposing the Keystone XL pipeline, offshore drilling and, indeed, most forms of fracking, a drilling technique also known as hydraulic fracturing.

In a debate last month in Flint, Mich., she said she would severely regulate fracking.

“By the time we get through all of my conditions,” she said, “I do not think there will be many places in America where fracking will continue to take place.”

But Mr. Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, had a snappy retort: “My answer is a lot shorter. No, I do not support fracking.”

The absolutism of Mr. Sanders’s position on this and other climate issues — as well as the fact that Mrs. Clinton arrived at her views under pressure from the left — has made many activists mistrustful of her and supportive of Mr. Sanders.

Alarmed by reports of potentially catastrophic polar ice melting and other disruptions, many environmentalists believe only a rapid transition to renewable energy is acceptable.

“We’re in the middle of a climate emergency, and have to keep all the fossil fuels in the ground,” said Sandra Steingraber, a scholar in residence at Ithaca College and an activist who supports Mr. Sanders. “Hillary Clinton has definitely shifted her positions. Whether she shifts them again should she become the Democratic candidate in a general election and softens them, that’s the question I hear people wondering about.”

As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton pioneered a program to promote fracking around the world, as a way to encourage the use of cleaner-burning natural gas and to reduce Russia’s political leverage from its huge gas resources.

Fracking involves pumping water and chemicals deep in the ground under high pressure to blast rock and release gas or oil. The technology unleashed a United States energy boom beginning a decade ago, including the conversion of many coal-fired power plants to cheaper — and cleaner — gas.

Natural gas provides 33 percent of the nation’s electricity, up from 18 percent in 2005, according to the United States Energy Information Administration.

Mr. Obama has championed natural gas as crucial to his Clean Power Plan, seeking to cut by a third greenhouse emissions used to generate electricity by 2030.

Many energy analysts say that an outright ban on fracking, before wind and solar power are feasible at scale, will drive the country back to coal.

“Why not use a relatively clean fuel that’s low cost until it’s not needed,” said Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow at Resources for the Future, a nonpartisan research group in Washington.

He said Mr. Sanders’s call for an outright fracking ban, and Mrs. Clinton’s support for regulations so tough drilling would largely cease, were both unrealistic because most fracking is regulated by states, not Washington.

Mrs. Clinton’s step back from fracking is just one of several reversals on energy and environmental issues she has made since coming under pressure from progressives. Her decision to oppose the Keystone XL pipeline came in September, after she had avoided the issue repeatedly over the summer.

Her position on offshore drilling has also evolved. As secretary of state, Mrs. Clinton was asked to comment on an Interior Department proposal to expand offshore drilling in the Arctic Ocean and in the Gulf of Mexico. In a January 2012 letter, provided to The New York Times by the Republican National Committee, she wrote to the interior secretary, Ken Salazar, that the State Department had no comments to offer on the plan.

Now, as a presidential candidate, she has been a vocal opponent of offshore drilling. Last year, after the Obama administration moved forward with plans on new drilling in the Arctic and off the southeastern Atlantic coast, Mrs. Clinton came out against the plans, a move that was seen as an effort to court the progressive wing of her party.

The spat between the two campaigns over donations from the oil and gas industry, which quickly overheated last week, came as polls have tightened in New York, which Mrs. Clinton once led by a large margin.

On Friday, Mr. Sanders demanded that Mrs. Clinton apologize for accusing his campaign of lying by saying she took large sums from fossil fuel donors.

According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the Clinton campaign has received about $308,000 from individuals who work for oil and gas companies, less than 1 percent of her total donations.

The Sanders campaign points to a Greenpeace analysis claiming that in addition, oil and gas lobbyists directed more than $4.5 million to her campaign and to a “super PAC” supporting her.

But the lobbyists represent numerous industries, not just oil and gas, and the suggestion of a quid pro quo is shaky: Mrs. Clinton has pledged to end subsidies to the fossil fuel industry to pay for her ambitious climate plan.

Although fracking and other climate issues may sway primary voters in New York, they seem less likely to in the next delegate-rich state to vote, Pennsylvania, which has a large fracking industry developed under former Gov. Ed Rendell, a Democrat. Last month in Ohio, which has also benefited from the energy boom, Mrs. Clinton easily defeated Mr. Sanders

Republican candidates have promised to make Democrats’ tough stands against fossil fuels an issue in November. Donald J. Trump has said he can win New York as the Republican nominee because of the economic cost of the fracking ban, which he opposes. Last month he said that thanks to fracking, people across the border in Pennsylvania drove around in Cadillacs.

Fight over fracking lingers in New York

ALBANY, N.Y. — When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s administration first said it would ban large-scale hydraulic fracturing, it was hailed as a victory for vocal environmentalists and fracking opponents and a stunning defeat for the natural-gas industry.

Now, 10 months later, gas companies are still weighing whether to sue ahead of a fast-approaching deadline. And fracking critics aren’t taking any chances, even as some shift their focus to other states and different sectors of the energy industry.

“New York’s ban has really been embraced by not only the advocacy community, but elected officials around the world — from the local, state and national level,” said Julia Walsh, an organizer with New Yorkers Against Fracking and Frack Action. “If it’s not safe for New York, it’s not safe for ‘X’ country or ‘X’ state.”

Cuomo’s administration first announced Dec. 17 that it would move to ban high-volume hydrofracking, the much-debated technique using water, sand and chemicals to help access natural gas in underground shale formations. The announcement marked the beginning of the end of a nearly seven-year review process that spanned two governors and three environmental commissioners.

Since then, New Yorkers Against Fracking, the coalition of like-minded groups that shadowed Cuomo at events and campaign stops across the state, has remained active, with some of its leaders traveling to other states — and even other countries — to speak about the successful push against drilling in New York.

The Park Foundation, an Ithaca-based philanthropic fund, has also continued to fund state-based anti-fracking efforts despite the ban, including a $125,000 grant to New Yorkers Against Fracking earlier this year.

Overall, the foundation awarded more than $700,000 in grants to fracking-related causes from January through June across the country, including to efforts in North Carolina and California. An $80,000 grant went toward the making of the third installment of Gasland, the documentary series that casts fracking in an environmentally negative light and helped bring national attention to the technique.

On the other side of the oft-contentious debate, trade groups representing the natural-gas industry face a key Oct. 27 deadline to file what’s known as an Article 78 claim, which is used to challenge a judgment or action by a state agency.

Should they file the document in court, it would challenge the validity of the state Department of Environmental Conservation’s “findings statement” — the 43-page document that formally put the ban into place on June 29.

If they let the deadline pass, they forfeit their right to file an Article 78 claim. Separately, pro-fracking groups could also consider a lawsuit claiming damages from lost oil and gas rights, though similar efforts have been unsuccessful thus far.

So far, the industry has held its cards close, declining to say whether a lawsuit is on the way. But API New York, the deep-pocketed American Petroleum Institute’s state chapter, hasn’t ruled anything out, whether it’s a challenge to the findings statement or some other legal avenue.

“We are considering our options,” said Karen Moreau, executive director of API New York. “All options are still on the table.”

The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, a Binghamton-based organization representing landowners who had hoped to lease their gas rights to energy companies, had previously sued the Cuomo administration in an unsuccessful attempt to force a decision on fracking prior to the ban.

But unlike its previous legal effort, the coalition has not been raising funds for a possible lawsuit this time around.

“Various groups are looking at a variety of options,” said Scott Kurkoski, the coalition’s attorney.

Other fracking supporters are looking at ways around the ban, which only applies to fracking operations using more than 300,000 gallons of water.

Tioga Energy Partners, a limited liability company, has filed an application with the state Department of Environmental Conservation seeking approval to use a propane-based, waterless form of fracking to help access gas in the Tioga County portion of the Marcellus and Utica shale formations.

Propane-based fracking isn’t covered under the state’s ban. But approval of the permits is far from a foregone conclusion: The DEC could order an environmental review similar to the one that tied up high-volume, water-based fracking in New York for more than seven years before Cuomo’s administration decided to ban it.

Walter Hang, an Ithaca-based organizer and owner of environmental database firm Toxics Targeting, has focused his efforts on stopping the propane-fracking applications.

The state’s fracking ban, he said, should be widened to include fracking with more than 5,000 gallons of any substance, not just 300,000 gallons of water. He’s urged his mailing list, which has thousands of recipients, to call Cuomo’s office and nudge him on the matter.

“Shale fracking really hasn’t been prohibited, and I’m not convinced that the actual prohibition has so many giant loopholes that the industry could frack any time it wants to,” Hang said. “Waterless alternatives aren’t included in any way, shape or form.”

Hydraulic fracturing officially prohibited in New York

(WBNG Binghamton) The state Department of Environmental Conservation has officially prohibited high-volume hydraulic fracturing across New York.

The DEC issued its formal findings statement this week, completing a seven year review.

"We are a state that’s at the heart of the Marcellus Shale formation," said President of Toxics Targeting Walter Hang. " And we value protecting public health and the environment more than we value getting fossil fuels out of the ground."

In its statement, the DEC said, "high-volume hydraulic fracturing poses significant adverse impacts to land, air, water, natural resources and potential significant public health impacts."

Not everyone agrees.

"This is nothing more than a political decision," said President of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York Daniel Fitzsimmons.

Earlier this month, the United States Environmental Protection Agency released a draft assessment of its latest study on hydro-fracking.

The EPA concluded, "hydraulic fracturing activities in the U.S. are carried out in a way that have not led to widespread, systemic impacts on drinking water resources."
Fitzsimmons agrees with the EPA.

"I believe the EPA, the federal government," said Fitzsimmons. "There isn't anything that's brought up where hydraulic fracturing has actually caused any problem with any water aquifers. None."

Hang hopes to meet with representatives with the EPA soon.
"We're gonna try to get EPA to revise that draft," said Hang. "Shale fracking has to be done properly, otherwise it can't be allowed."

Some say fracking can be done properly.

"There's 30 states that are actually drilling and are using hydraulic fracturing," said Fitzsimmons. "This can be done safely we just have to use the proper management practices and do it right."

Walter Hang Interview on Binghamton Now - 6/30/2015

7 years later, NY finalizes fracking review

A natural gas rig in Washington, PA - (Photo: Keith Srakocic / AP)

ALBANY – The state Department of Environmental Conservation released a 2,000-page, seven-years-in-the-making report Wednesday that lays the groundwork for the state's promised ban of large-scale hydraulic fracturing.

The release of the voluminous document, known as the Final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, is one of the state's last steps before it can prohibit high-volume fracking for natural gas, as Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration pledged to do last December.

The report, released just after 4 p.m. Wednesday, clears the way for state Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens to issue a final order prohibiting the much-debated technique from moving forward in New York.

Now, state law says Martens must wait at least 10 days before issuing his "findings statement," a separate, legally binding document that will be closely scrutinized by the natural-gas industry and pro-fracking groups for any missteps that could be an opening for a lawsuit.

"The Final SGEIS is the result of an extensive examination of high-volume hydraulic fracturing and its potential adverse impacts on critical resources such as drinking water, community character and wildlife habitat," Martens said in a statement Wednesday.

The release of the report Wednesday was the culmination of a nearly seven-year process that has spanned two governors and three environmental conservation commissioners while drawing more than 260,000 public comments, an unprecedented amount for a state action of this sort.

Then-Gov. David Paterson first launched the process in July 2008, when he requested the report and put large-scale fracking on hold until it was done. That de facto moratorium has held ever since.

In December, Cuomo's administration announced its plan to prohibit high-volume fracking after Health Commissioner Howard Zucker issued a long-anticipated report outlining his concerns about its potential negative effects on human health.

The DEC's report issued Wednesday lays out the potential benefits and negative impacts of fracking, a technique in which water, sand and chemicals are blasted deep underground to release natural gas from shale formations, such as the gas-rich Marcellus Shale that spans the economically struggling Southern Tier.

From there, the report lays out a series of measures the state could use to lessen the negative effects, such as a ban on fracking within the New York City and Syracuse watersheds and strict rules on where drilling pads can be placed.

But Chapter 9 of the 2,000-page document lays out the option Martens has signaled he is likely to choose: the "no-action alternative," in which the state would deny any applications for high-volume fracking. The across-the-board denial would apply to any fracking that uses 300,000 gallons or more of fluid.

"The impacts to water resources that would be avoided by the no-action alternative merit special attention," the report reads. "Even with mitigation measures in place, the risk of spills and other unplanned events resulting in the discharge of toxic pollutants over a wide area would not be eliminated. Moreover, the level of risk such spills pose to public health is highly uncertain."

When finalized, New York would become the first shale-bearing state to prohibit high-volume fracking, which is permitted in Pennsylvania and many other states.

The document drew a largely positive response from environmental and anti-fracking groups, though at least one organizer expressed concerns. Fracking opponents had trailed Cuomo across much of the state during his first term in office, urging him to implement a statewide ban.

Kate Sinding, senior attorney for the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the final SGEIS "appears to solidly backup the governor's decision to ban fracking in New York."

"In the coming days, we will be digging through this lengthy analysis with a fine-tooth comb," Sinding said in a statement. "The governor has rightfully let science and the will of the people be his guide, despite pressure from a powerful industry."

The final document was criticized by business groups, pro-fracking Southern Tier landowners and API New York, the state chapter of a major natural-gas industry trade group, which has promised to explore its legal options to try and overturn the promised ban.

"This politically motivated document adds salt to the wounds across the state leaving New Yorkers wondering where the jobs will come from now," Karen Moreau, executive director of API New York, said in a statement.

Walter Hang, owner of Ithaca-based environmental database firm Toxics Targeting, said he has "grave concerns" about the report. Nothing in the document requires Martens to issue an order banning fracking, he noted.

Hang has helped organize fracking critics across much of the Southern Tier, staging rallies outside of many of Cuomo's events dating back to his gubernatorial campaign in 2010.

"When you look at this document, that's the bottom line: it does not specifically prohibit it," Hang said. "On the contrary, it actually provides the authority to allow shale fracking to occur if it's authorized."

Unshackle Upstate, a Rochester-based business group, said the fracking ban means New York "missed out on a transformative economic opportunity."

"Allowing safe, responsible natural gas development in the Southern Tier would have created thousands of good paying jobs in a region that truly needs them," said Greg Biryla, the group's executive director.

To read the Final Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, New York's long-anticipated fracking review, visit:

What's next?

Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens must wait at least 10 days before issuing a legally binding "findings statement," which he has previously said will prohibit high-volume fracking in New York.

Anti-fracking groups demand details of fracking ban

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Groups that oppose fracking for natural gas are calling on Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) to specifically detail how a ban on fracking in New York state will be carried out.

Cuomo announced his decision to ban fracking in December, but Toxics Targeting President Walter Hang says that's not enough.

Hang said the review released by the Department of Public Health does not specifically mention adopting a shale fracking ban, or making any such ban permanent.

"We just basically need to know, 'Is it gonna be banned for good? Is it gonna be banned for a little while?'" Hang said. "If it's a temporary ban, that's a moratorium. That's what we've had. The key thing is, we need to have public participation."

Department of Environmental Conservation officials said the findings of the health review will be included in a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS.

Hang's letter to the governor pushes for public opinion to be considered before a final SGEIS is adopted.

Ralph Nader Radio Hour interviews Walter Hang

Environmental activist extraordinaire, Walter Hang, tells us the inspiring story of how a highly organized grassroots movement led to Governor Cuomo prohibiting fracking in New York State.

Fracking opponents celebrate ban in Binghamton

Members of the anti-drilling coalition gather today to support Wednesday's decision by New York to block fracking.

Up until 12:15 p.m. Wednesday, many leaders of New York's anti-fracking movement were convinced the state was going to approve a pilot program in Broome and nearby counties using the controversial drilling method.

Conflicting rumors swirled that morning after it was first reported the state would make an announcement on natural gas exploration. Drilling opponents said they feared they had lost the first round in their six-year battle to ban fracking in New York.

Only when Acting Health Commissioner Howard Zucker urged the state to prevent fracking from moving forward did opponents feel relief.

"I never thought this would happen," said Walter Hang of the Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting during a celebration rally Thursday in front of the Binghamton State Office Building.

About 20 members of the anti-drilling coalition gathered to sign a "thank you" card that was delivered to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's representatives in Binghamton.

On Wednesday, Zucker and Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said after a comprehensive review of scientific studies examining the environmental effects of fracking, they could not recommend New York proceed with the practice of extracting natural gas from shale formations deep beneath the ground.

The recommendation effectively blocks natural gas drilling using the fracking technique in New York.

"This is a victory for the people of Southern Tier, the people of New York and it is cause for celebration," said Isaac Silberman-Gorn, a community organizer for Citizen Action in Binghamton.

Drilling supporters, however, were angered by the determination, saying the state failed to consider evidence indicating that natural gas exploration using horizontal drilling techniques could be done safely with the proper regulations and monitoring.

They point to the more than 30 other states, including California, where fracking has been approved, creating an abundance of newly discovered natural gas and petroleum.

Hydraulic fracturing uses a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to fracture shale formation up to a mile or more underground to release trapped natural gas.

Broome County Executive Debbie Preston said the decision to block fracking will cost municipalities along the gas-rich Marcellus Shale millions of dollars in potential tax revenue, closing off tax relief from beleaguered homeowners.

Additionally, she said, drilling would have spurred development in a region that has suffered from job losses over at least the past 10 years.

"I still think it can be done safely," Preston said. Only a short distance from her own Conklin home, Preston said Pennsylvania-based drills are tapping the resource that now is off-limits for her New York neighbors.

A ban may also have a potential effect on real estate values, said Preston, a Republican. Now that drilling is prohibited in New York, properties that were assessed on the basis of the potential income from gas resources believed to be underneath the ground could possibly appeal for reduced valuations.

The move by the state's top health and environmental regulators is the culmination of a decision-making process that has stretched through more than six years, two governors, several layers of review, numerous missed deadlines and countless protests and rallies across the state.

It represents a major victory for fracking critics, many of whom have trailed Cuomo, a Democrat, at events for the past four years. New York becomes the first state with significant shale reserves to move toward a formal fracking ban.

Celebrating the fracking ban

Binghamton, NY (WBNG Binghamton) Dozens of people against hydraulic fracturing celebrated a win regarding the ban on fracking in New York.

People from various groups across the Southern Tier gathered in front of the State Office building in downtown Binghamton Thursday afternoon to say thanks and to talk about how their hard work has paid off.

"The science, as we've been talking about for many years, that brings us here, brings us to this place of victory and a New York state that will be frack-free," said Issac Silberman-Gorn, of Citizen Action.

Even former Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan (D) made the trip from Ithaca for the celebration and stood in the same spot where they've been protesting for so many years.

"We're here to praise the governor and what he did. We're very thankful for him listening to the science and leaving it up to the DEC and the health commissioner to make this decision," Ryan said.

For some, the decision was a welcome shock.

"I was shocked, I couldn't believe it. We worked so hard and so long, we brought so much information to the governor's attention, the DEC and the Department of Health. But I had no inkling that he would actually prohibit shale fracking in New York," said Walter Hang, the president of Toxics Targeting, of Ithaca.

After the rally, the group sent a thank you card and clean, frack-free water from the Southern Tier to Gov. Andrew Cuomo's office.

With Unresolved Health Risks and Few Signs of an Economic Boon, Cuomo to Ban Gas Fracking

After years of gauging the environmental, medical, economic and political risks of hydraulic fracturing, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is moving to ban this method of extracting natural gas from shale deposits in New York State.

[Update, 9:30 p.m. | See the end of the post for an excerpt from the state health study that underpinned the decision.]

It had been clear for years, as I wrote in 2012, that there was little political or economic impetus to act quickly, even though I felt (and still am convinced) that gas extraction from shale can be done safely and cleanly if properly regulated.

I would have preferred an approach allowing some carefully supervised drilling where communities were supportive — which Cuomo had pondered several years ago. See my conversation with Josh Fox, the director of “Gasland,” for more on my view.

But for a governor, data on drilling risks are just one of a host of considerations. The issue is similar to President Obama’s quandary on the Keystone oil pipeline. (It’ll be interesting to see if low oil prices prompt the president to tip the balance there toward rejection. On Tuesday, Obama announced he was barring oil and gas exploration in Alaska’s Bristol Bay.)

Cuomo faced sustained, forceful and creative opposition from his left (the image below is one example of the creativity) and, as the upstate journalist Tom Wilber made clear in his blog and book, “Under the Surface,” there were few signs that New York would be able to provide sufficient oversight to justify drilling. (Read here for more on that question.) On top of this, courts were increasingly upholding community efforts to enact local bans.

A montage created in 2012 by Mark Ohe showed what a gas drilling site using hydraulic fracturing would look like near the Mount Kisco, N.Y., home of Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

The natural gas news is nicely summarized by The New York Times and Associated Press. The A.P. story had this excellent section laying out how the decision was unveiled, with the prime factors being “red flag” issues described by the state health commissioner, Howard Zucker, and scant signs of an economic benefit described by Joe Martens, the environmental conservation commissioner:

Zucker and Martens on Wednesday summarized the findings of environmental and health reviews that concluded that shale gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing carried unacceptable risks that haven’t been sufficiently studied….

The gas drilling boom in the Marcellus Shale, a rock formation underlying southern New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia, was made possible by fracking, or high-volume hydraulic fracturing, which releases gas from rock by injecting wells with chemically treated water at high pressure.

The drilling technique has generated tens of billions of dollars and reduced energy bills and fuel imports. But it’s also brought concerns and sparked protests over air and water pollution, earthquakes, property devaluation, heavy truck traffic and health impacts.

New York has had a ban on shale gas development since the environmental review began in 2008.

Zucker said he had identified “significant public health risks” and “red flag” health issues that require long-term studies before fracking can be called safe. He likened fracking to secondhand smoke, which wasn’t fully understood as a health risk until many years of scientific study had been done.

Martens noted the low price of natural gas, the high local cost of industry oversight and the large areas that would be off-limits to shale gas development because of setback requirements, water supply protections, and local prohibitions. He said those factors combine to make fracking less economically beneficial than had been anticipated.

I reached out to a variety of people involved in, or tracking, the New York gas-drilling fight for reactions. The first response are below, with more added as they come in.

But first here’s a helpful excerpt from the No Fracking Way blog written by Chip Northrup, a former oil and gas investor who has long fought against drilling in New York (and who’s been on Dot Earth before). Alluding to the arguments of Cuomo’s commissioners Zucker and Martens, Northrup noted:

Both of them cited the greatly reduced area where fracking would actually take place in New York – since most upstate towns ban it.

And the only towns that might allow it are in an small area by the Pennsylvania border that is not currently economic. So, frankly, simply not worth fracking fooling with.

Which makes perfect sense from all standpoints: environmentally, economically and politically.

Bruce Selleck, a geologist at Colgate University who is deeply conversant with both the shale and gas down below and politics on the surface, offered this trenchant reaction:

My suspicion is that Andrew Cuomo sees little chance of being nominated for president in 2016, and 2020 is such a long time away that making this decision now keeps his close supporters happier. Low natural gas (and crude) prices also make it an easier call. Now we have four new casinos, but no new rural economic development. What a great state!

Walter Hang, an environmental mapping consultant and nonstop anti-drilling campaigner, wrote this:

This stupendous victory was won by an unrelenting grassroots citizen campaign powered by amazing press coverage that systematically highlighted the public health and environmental concerns of shale fracking. That effort has won a victory unparalleled in the annals of the American environmental movement.

Here’s John Cronin, formerly the Hudson Riverkeeper and currently senior fellow for environmental policy at Pace University’s Pace Academy for Applied Environmental Studies (we teach one course together):

I take Governor Cuomo at his word — fracking will run afoul of New York’s interests in public health and the environment. The case is strong. I believe he is convinced by the evidence, which has only been made stronger during the prolonged regulatory decision period. There is no political advantage to Cuomo’s decision. No realistic presidential candidates from either party are articulating strong anti-fracking positions. There is no possibility there will be a future gubernatorial upset over the issue. Mainstream environmentalists will never abandon him in favor of a Republican or independent challenger. He is alienating parts of the public, and monied interests, for whom regional fracking is a voter getter. Sometimes decisions are made for the very reasons that officials articulate.

Steve Everley, who for years has represented the industry position on gas in the Marcellus through the Energy in Depth blog, sent a long note from which I’m extracting this excerpt (I’ll post the full note in the comment string):

What strikes me about the Cuomo administration’s use of health risks to restrict fracking is that, just a few short years ago, the same New York Department of Environmental Conservation declared, “we’ve concluded that high-volume hydrofracking can be undertaken safely, along with strong and aggressive regulations.” Other than political considerations, what changed?

Certainly the DEC would claim that “new” studies show the health risks are too great. But there were studies before DEC’s 2011 proclamation that suggested there are concerns that need to be addressed. Isn’t that why we have regulations – to make sure risks and other concerns are addressed? There have also been studies showing that development is protective of public health, to say nothing of the fact that natural gas is a far cleaner alternative to some of our other power and heating options. New York is the fifth largest consumer of natural gas in the United States, but I heard nothing from DEC suggesting that it would be imposing a moratorium on the use of gas produced by fracking elsewhere.

If this were a real health threat, and not motivated by politics, then wouldn’t the Cuomo administration be pleading with its neighbors in Pennsylvania to stop producing natural gas? I must have missed that portion of the press conference.

The decision to ban any economic activity – be it oil and gas development or any other industry – suggests that the process itself is inherently unsafe and cannot be done safely. No one who is interested in objectivity could make that claim about hydraulic fracturing. Gallup reported earlier this year that the top state in overall wellbeing was North Dakota, fueled by the massive economic opportunities unleashed by the oil boom. That ranking included factors such as health and access to basic necessities. If allowing fracking posed insurmountable health problems, then how are people in North Dakota doing so well?

Somehow, we’ve discovered ways to develop oil and gas in ways that are not only protective of public health, but actually lead to net benefits in terms of well-being. It’s not that we couldn’t replicate that in New York, it’s that the DEC didn’t even want to try.

In his email, Everley noted that he had relocated from the Northeast back to Dallas earlier this month.

In many ways, that move may well reflect the inevitability of what just happened.

Added 6:04 p.m. | Anthony Ingraffea, Dwight C. Baum Professor of Engineering Emeritus at Cornell University and president of Physicians, Scientists, and Engineers for Healthy Energy, Inc., sent this note:

Two wise New York State governors: Paterson for imposing the de facto moratorium in 2008 when there were 6 (six) peer reviewed papers in the literature on shale gas impacts; Cuomo for understanding that by 2010 there were still only 6 (six) and he demanded that the science dictate his decision.

There are now over 400 papers, about 3/4th in the last two years. The science played catch-up to policy in other states–it is dictating policy in NYS. An annotated Compendium of those papers is at

and an analysis of the state-of-the-science on health impacts is at

Added 6:22 p.m. | Tom Wilber, the author and journalist focused on the Marcellus gas fight, wrote:

This decision is consistent with Cuomo’s progressive politics that got him to where he is now. It’s a bold move and I optimistically take it as sincere attempt to overcome inertia of fossil fuel dependency. But it needs to be accompanied by practical reforms/initiatives in energy development & consumption….

Cuomo finally got tired of being hounded on the issue by his political base. The movement in New York against shale gas was relentless and it was directed at him personally. At one point, he told Susan Arbetter, host of Capitol Press Room, that it was the most effective political action campaign he had seen. (I have a note out to Susan for the date of that show) Activists, both institutional and grass roots, promised to step it if he allowed a single well.

The other thing was the influence of the Home Rule decision, and the falling price of natural gas made this politically much easier. He would have a hard taking this bone from landowners back when landmen were at their doors with big checks in hand. Nobody is currently seriously looking at shale gas exploration, much less development, in New York with the prices as low as they are and the encumbrances of Home Rule. [Here’s Wilber’s blog post.]

Added, 9:30 p.m. | Here’s an excerpt from the Department of Health review of research on shale gas and illness, which found too many unresolved questions and plausible risks to endorse high volume hydraulic fracturing (abbreviated as HVHF in the report):

Based on this review, it is apparent that the science surrounding HVHF activity is limited, only just beginning to emerge, and largely suggests only hypotheses about potential public health impacts that need further evaluation….

As with most complex human activities in modern societies, absolute scientific certainty regarding the relative contributions of positive and negative impacts of HVHF on public health is unlikely to ever be attained. In this instance, however, the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF to all New Yorkers and whether the risks can be adequately managed, DOH recommends that HVHF should not proceed in New York State.

Ithaca’s fracking foes declare jubilant victory after "sacrificing day and night for years"

Ithaca, N.Y. — Local environmental activist Walter Hang got a call Wednesday soon after Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s stunning announcement that he would ban fracking in New York State.

It was from a New Your state legislator. The legislator thanked Hang. Hang thanked the legislator.

And then the legislator burst into tears — tears, Hang said, of emotional jubilance after five years of an all-out push to get fracking banned in NY State.

“This is a state legislator who has worked so hard. Citizens have sacrificed day and night for years and it’s just an unprecedented effort,” Hang said. “The sacrifices here are just mind-blowing.”

Hang said anti-fracking activists from Ithaca “played an instrumental role” in getting Gov. Cuomo to recognize the environmental and public dangers of the shale fracking practice.

For five years, he said, they attended rallies, petitioned state lawmakers, and did whatever they could to make their voices heard.

The anti-fracking coalition came to include students, religious leaders, academics, local activists and others concerned about the health implications of the practice.

“They participated in more rallies than you could shake a stick out for five brutally long years,” Hang said.

Today’s announcement, he said, was a revelation.

“No other state has ever said to the biggest corporations in the planet: you cannot desecrate our water, our environment just because you want to extract gas and oil. This is just absolutely mind-boggling.”

Fracking opponents want environmental review withdrawn

A coalition of groups opposed to hydraulic fracturing in New York held a news conference in Binghamton on Monday to call on the state to withdraw a six-years-in-the-making environmental review.

From the Press & Sun-Bulletin's Steven Howe:

BINGHAMTON -- A coalition of organizations opposing fracking in New York met outside City Hall at 38 Hawley St. Monday afternoon to request Gov. Andrew Cuomo withdraw an environmental impact statement which they say is outdated.The state is expected to base part of its decision on hydraulic fracturing around the impact statement, which was released in September 2009 and revised two years later. Since that time, new state health reports and scientific research have been published which the statement doesn’t consider, said Walter Hang, who owns Ithaca-based environmental database firm Toxics Targeting, during the Monday news conference.“When you look at the document it’s so ancient, it’s so outdated by scientific standards that we believe it simply needs to be withdrawn,” said Hang, of Ithaca. Former Binghamton Mayor Matthew T. Ryan and representatives from New York Residents Against Drilling and Chenango Community Action for Renewable Energy attended the news conference. The coalition plans to send a letter to Cuomo requesting an updated draft environmental statement with a comprehensive health impact study. So far, 803 people have signed the letter, according to Toxics Targeting’s website.

Report: Auburn's sewage treatment plant cannot accept gas drilling wastewater

Auburn City Councilor Terry Cuddy answers questions during a press conference on Thursday
concerning gas drilling wastewater with Walter Hang, left, president of Ithaca firm Toxics Targeting.

AUBURN | A report from an engineering firm has concluded that the city of Auburn's sewage treatment plant cannot accept wastewater produced by natural gas drilling.

The report is the latest chapter of the city's gas drilling wastewater saga dating back several years. In August 2012, the Auburn City Council had authorized engineering firm GHD Consulting Services, Inc. to analyze the city's sewage treatment facility.

This report was authorized after members of the Auburn City Council voted to rescind a ban on treating wastewater produced by natural gas drilling, or hydrofracking, in March 2012. The state Department of Environmental Conservation required the city to conduct the report before the plant could accept any further wastewater of that nature, according to City Manager Doug Selby.

One and a half years later, GHD came to its conclusion in the report finalized in March, but released to the public on Thursday. The report concluded that the plant could not accept the gas drilling wastewater because the plant does not have the capacity to handle the resulting excessive chloride levels.

At Thursday's council meeting, Selby said levels of chloride are already present in the water that is treated at the plant. The wastewater treatment plant accepts other industrial waste products including materials from the McQuay facility and Nucor Steel, among others, according to the report.

The firm concluded the additional gas drilling wastewater would elevate those chloride levels to levels that would disrupt the biological treatment process used at the plant, according to GHD.

"At this point, staff considers this to be the conclusion of that effort to look at taking gas well drilling water back into the city system," Selby said Thursday.

Councilor Terry Cuddy, who advocated against treating gas drilling wastewater several years ago, said the report reasserts his past convictions concerning the gas drilling wastewater issue.

Cuddy was on hand for a press conference at City Hall on Thursday prior to the council meeting along with Walter Hang, president of Ithaca firm Toxics Targeting, Inc., to discuss the report's conclusions. Cuddy said there is a "potential" he could reintroduce the ban to council in the future.

"I want to make sure there is full consideration (by the council) before our next move," he said.

The ban was instated in 2011 at a 3-2 vote, with Mayor Michael Quill and past councilors Gilda Brower and Thomas McNabb in favor.

When two new councilors were seated in 2012 to replace McNabb and Brower, the ban was then lifted at a vote of 3-2 during a meeting where 30 people participated in the public to be heard. Councilor Peter Ruzicka and past councilors Bill Graney and Matt Smith were in favor.

Hang was critical of the council's decision to rescind what he called a "landmark" moratorium, claiming Auburn was, at the time, the first municipality in the country to instate such a ban.

He referenced the approximately $815,000 the city made in revenue after accepting approximately 16.4 million gallons of gas drilling wastewater from companies primarily in the Southern Tier.

On Thursday, Selby reported companies Auburn had dealt with in the past have likely found "other avenues" for business and staff is unsure they would come back.

"When the majority changed and they rescinded the ban, it was only because they wanted the money," Hang said.

Ruzicka, who was absent from Thursday's meeting, could not be reached for comment.

Obama’s upstate tour motivates anti-fracking activists President: ‘Fossil fuels finite. Climate change is real’

Anti-fracking protestors line the motorcade route at Binghamton University

It was tough going for the 400 protesters preparing for Obama’s visit to Binghamton University Friday. They faced traffic from a rush of returning students and a maze of construction barriers, detours, and police blockades. Parking on campus, limited under ideal circumstances, got predictably worse when police closed campus roads at 10 a.m., two and a half hours prior to the arrival of the presidential motorcade.

After getting an early morning start that began with a walk of a mile or more from remote parking spots, with NO FRACKING WAY placards and provisions in hand, the protesters – skewed heavily toward the baby boom generation but also including students -- gathered at a designated spot on the motorcade route in front of the university library. They rallied for hours while waiting for the president’s arrival. They chanted “Yes We Can,” echoing both the president’s campaign slogan, and their intention to stop fracking. The cheers reverberated across quads and walkways at the center of campus that were mostly empty due to security measures, and the animation of the protesters offered stark contrast to the poised vigilance of police and secret service personnel stationed at every turn.

Behind the scene at the Town Hall meeting

I passed the protesters as I negotiated the series of barriers and yellow tape, hurrying to get to the press check-in at the university union before the cut-off. After getting cleared, I was directed through the press entrance to the venue, where I set up my laptop at a bank of workstations that accommodated about 40 other reporters on the periphery of the action. My view was partially obscured by the risers in front of me, which held cameras for photographers and broadcast outlets. The press pool, easily numbering more than 100, flanked one side of the small hall. The president’s podium was in the middle. Two other sets of risers – opposite and at a right angle to the risers for the press pool -- held students and faculty picked from a lottery. In the remaining space a row of folded chairs directly in front of the president was reserved for local officials and dignitaries.

A few hours later, with everybody in their assigned places, a helicopter churned overhead and the presidential motorcade turned onto campus. As the line of motorcycles with flashing lights, SUVs and a large black bus with the presidential seal made their way up the road, the activists by the library seized their brief moment and shouted and waved banners. Some glimpsed the president standing near the front of the bus, but it was difficult to discern a reaction behind the tinted class. It was over in an instant, and several minutes later, the president made his way into the Union from an unseen entrance.

Video of Obama's town hall meeting at Binghamton

Obama opened the meeting with a short talk about education as the essence of the American Dream. Predictably, he offered no passing mention of the subject that stirred the protest that greeted his arrival, or other protests that had been staged across various points of his two-day tour through upstate New York and Pennsylvania. The questions and answers of the two-hour town hall meeting were themed around equality and access and affordability of the American higher education system. (With due respect to the significance of the educational issues that were the focus of the president’s tour, I will not go into these much here, and leave that worthwhile work to other bloggers and educational beat writers.)

In keeping with the heart of the theme of his second term – working for the middle class -- Obama projected an approachable and informal manner throughout his upstate tour, which included spontaneous stops to greet surprised onlookers at soccer-fields, diners, and cafes. And he kept up that manner at Binghamton University. “I’m interested in hearing your stories, getting your questions,” he said. “And this will be a pretty informal affair -- well, as informal as it gets when the President comes -- (to laughter) -- and there are a bunch of cameras everywhere.” After calling on a student in an Obama T-shirt, he advised “here’s a general rule in the presidential town hall: If you want to get called on, wear the president's face on your shirt.” (The student’s question: How does your administration plan to address the major budget cuts that are happening with Head Start schools around the U.S.? Obama’s answer: As the deficit continues to fall with the economic recovery, he sees more resources for federal funding. But it remains a political fight, and he will fight for worthwhile programs like Head Start.)

Near the end of the meeting, Obama called on a man with something other than education on his mind. His name was Adam Flint, coordinator of a Cooperative Extension program called Broome Energy Leadership Program. Flint began with a bit of context: Fossil fuels might last another generation. And then what? He was worried about his children’s futures, and he was guessing that the president, with adolescent daughters of his own, shared his concern. “Is there any good news for green economy of future?” Flint asked.

Behind that simple question lies a convoluted political dilemma, and the president’s answer reflected this, if little else. On the one hand, Obama said, with record production of domestic fossil fuel “we’ve actually achieved, or are on the verge of achieving about as close as you can get to energy independence as America is going to see.” He notably chose to avoid the word “fracking” – the controversial method of splitting rock with pressurized chemical solutions. This technology, exempt from federal regulations that govern chemicals that go into the ground and waste that comes out of the ground, is largely responsible for prolonging and enabling our fossil fuel-based energy system.

Without mentioning these exemptions, Obama pushed on to the crux of the question: The future. “The bottom line is those (fossil fuels) are still finite resources. Climate change is real. The planet is getting warmer. And you’ve got several billion Chinese, Indians, Africans and others who also want cars, refrigerators, electricity. And as they go through their development cycle, the planet cannot sustain the same kinds of energy use as we have right now. So we’re going to have to make a shift.”

The shift will require new technology, he said. But immediate improvements can come through conservation measures now within reach that could reduce the country’s energy consumption by 20 percent to 30 percent. Retrofitting buildings for energy efficiency, as well as building new energy-efficient buildings and communities, can create jobs as well as decrease energy dependence. But even a relatively simple approach like this – what Obama called the “low hanging fruit” of the energy question – involves a problem. The problem is rooted deeply in prevailing influence of Big Energy on Capitol Hill, and ideological factors that “tend not to be particularly sympathetic to alternative energy strategies,” Obama said.

“In some cases, we’ve actually been criticized that it’s a socialist plot that’s restricting your freedom for us to encourage energy-efficient light bulbs, for example. I never understood that. But you hear those arguments. I mean, you can go on the Web, and people will be decrying how simple stuff that we’re doing, like trying to set up regulations to make appliances more energy-efficient -- which saves consumers money and is good for our environment -- is somehow restricting America’s liberty and violates the Constitution.

“A lot of our job is to educate the public as to why this can be good for them -- in a very narrow self-interested way. This is not pie in the sky. This is not tree-hugging, sprout-eating university professors. This is a practical, hardheaded, smart, business-savvy approach to how we deal with energy.”

Obama is dealing with energy in a somewhat different way than his fellow Democratic leader, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo. Obama has embraced an “all of the above” approach to encourage sources of domestic energy production, including fossil fuels and renewables, and in previous speeches he has identified fracking for natural gas and oil as “a priority.” Obama’s words have been supported by his actions: His EPA has dropped two critical investigations into groundwater pollution near drilling sites in Pavillion, Wyoming and Dimock, Pennsylvania. Both investigations found chemicals associated with drilling in residential water wells, and this finding, if pursued, could have provided ammunition for policy reform and a threat to the industry’s exemption to the Safe Drinking Water Act. Also, Obama’s Department of Energy has begun permitting facilities to export gas, a move that will encourage more exploration and production at home.

Cuomo, on the other hand, leads a state that sits over a lucrative part of the Marcellus and Utica shales – world class gas reserves. Yet Cuomo has not allowed shale gas development. A defacto-moratorium on permitting is now entering its sixth year, while the Cuomo administration continues to evaluate health and environmental impacts of fracking and the broader consequences of shale gas development.

In the meantime, political action groups both for and against fracking have used the delay to pressure Cuomo. Fracking supporters also appeared with signs – Drill a Well, bring a soldier home -- within view of the presidential motorcade yesterday. That protest, at Otsiningo Park boarding Route 81 several miles north of Binghamton, was much smaller and less visible than the one on campus, and the difference between the two protests illustrates the way things are going in New York state.

Walter Hang, an anti-fracking activist and an organizer of the Binghamton University protest, said the logistically difficult demonstration on campus was a reflection of the organizational ability and commitment of the anti-fracking push from the grass roots that has stalled the development of shale gas at the Pennsylvania border.

“When Obama’s office announced he would be taking a bus tour through upstate, we knew this was a chance to get our message out nationally,” said Hang, a career activist who worked as a community organizer for New York Public Interest Research Group for decades. Hang emphasizes the importance of tactics and execution in political action campaigns. “We’re out-organizing the industry in New York state,” he said.

In addition to well-organized grass roots campaigns in upstate New York, the movement is also getting help from Cuomo’s broader progressive base, which includes a host of institutions and influence from the Hudson Valley and New York City areas strongly opposed to fracking.

Cuomo, seen by many as a rising star in the Democratic party and a possible successor to Obama, neatly sidestepped this chapter of the shale gas controversy. After greeting the president at the Buffalo airport Thursday, he took his daughters back to college while the president made his rounds upstate.

On a related note: While most drilling takes place on private land, the federal government is considering a set of rules to regulate fracking on federal and Indian lands. This recent article by Keith Johnson of the Wall Street Journal explains the fight between the industry and environmentalists over the scope of proposed rules by the Bureau of Land Management.

As Obama Visits Upstate New York, the Fracking Debate Takes Center Stage

President Obama is planning to tout his education plan when he visits upstate New York this week, beginning with an appearance in Buffalo today—but much of his audience is likely to be interested in only one subject: fracking. Obama has, for the most part, been in favor of using fracking—more properly known as hydraulic fracturing—to exploit the country’s huge resources of shale natural gas. In his 2012 State of the Union speech, Obama pledged to “take every possible action to safely develop” natural gas, promising that shale gas would add hundreds of thousands of jobs to the economy. And he’s been true to his word—the U.S. produced in 2012 8.13 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas from shale deposits, which requires fracking, nearly double the total from 2010, and the Energy Information Administration projects that by 2030 that figure could pass 14 trillion cubic ft. While the Environmental Protection Agency and the Interior Department are working on possibly stronger new national regulations of fracking, for the most part the natural gas industry has had its way under Obama. He may not have intended it when he entered the White House in 2009, but Obama really has been America’s “driller-in-chief.“

That’s exactly why protesters are likely to be out in force tomorrow in Buffalo, and even more so when Obama continues his visit to Binghamton, NY. Fracking remains controversial throughout the U.S., thanks to concerns over potential water contamination and pollution from wells, as well as fears that the new supplies of natural gas will bind the country more permanently to carbon-heavy fossil fuels. Ground zero for that emotional debate is New York state, which has both a massive potential reserve of shale gas and a determined community of environmentalists and activists working to ensure that fracking never happens in the Empire State. “We’re going to be present in Binghamton by the hundreds, if not the thousands,” Walter Hang, the head of Ithaca-based Toxic Targeting, told WNYC.

In New York so far, environmentalists have been winning. For the past five years, the state has had a de-facto moratorium on fracking, while New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation has carried out an extended review of the impacts of hydraulic fracturing, and more recently as New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s health commissioner, Nirav Shah, reviews the health effects of fracking. There’s no word of when that will end—Shah told reporters back in May that a recommendation on fracking could be issued within weeks, but that has yet to come. While just across the border, drillers in Pennsylvania produced 1.5 trillion cubic ft. of natural gas using fracking through the first half of 2013, fracking is still on hold in New York as Cuomo makes up his mind.

Unlike Obama, the governor has said he’s neutral on fracking, but it won’t escape notice that Cuomo won’t be accompanying Obama to Binghamton on Friday, a town at the heart of the fracking debate in New York. (Binghamton enacted a municipal moratorium on fracking—one of a number of New York towns to do so—though the ban was struck down by a state Supreme Court justice last year.) Earlier this week Cuomo told The Capitol Pressroom, a public-radio program, that the President’s “point that fracking has economic benefits, energy benefits for this country—that’s inarguable.” But he questioned the environmental cost of the rush to shale gas:

Every area that has participated in fracking will tell you that it’s increased commercial activity and it has an economic boost effect. The question is: Is there a cost to the environment, et cetera? And that’s what has to be assessed and that’s what has to be weighed and that’s what we’re going through now.

So fracking will remain in limbo in New York, much to the consternation of the gas industry and upstate residents who want to make money off drilling on their land. Last week Reuters reported that Chesapeake Energy, one of the biggest players in the shale gas industry, was willing to walk away from disputes leases in New York, in part due to frustration over the slow pace of regulation. The New York public seems to be largely split on fracking—the Siena Research Institute reported in a poll on Aug. 29 that support for approval of fracking was at 41%, while opposition was at 42%. But they do tend to be passionate—just 12% of respondents said they had no opinion, almost half the number from last fall.

Cuomo will be up for re-election in 2014, and there’s been talk that he could run for the White House in 2016. The fracking debate puts him in a difficult spot. Supporting natural gas could help him appeal to conservatives who tend to want to see more drilling for domestic gas and oil. But environmentalists, especially in New York, have made fracking a red line—and as Obama will likely see in Buffalo and Binghamton, they’re not shy about letting politicians know what they’re feeling. New York, much more so than other states where fracking has already gone forward, has a motivated, wealthy and well-connected opposition to fracking. Approving fracking could well hurt Cuomo in 2014 and in a Democratic presidential primary in 2016, where there will be added pressure on candidates to take strong stands on climate change and the environment. But denying it could be harmful in a general election—as Obama has shown, even a Democratic President usually needs to be seen supporting domestic energy, including oil and natural gas

So maybe it’s not surprising that Cuomo seems to be taking the maximum amount of time to make up his mind—he could lose politically no matter what he does. Obama can relate—his decision-making process on the controversial Keystone XL oil sands pipeline has been drawn out for much the same reason. Still, while Cuomo might be able to dodge the fracking debate this week, he’ll have to make a decision eventually. And no matter what Cuomo decides, he’s going to have to deal with some very unhappy New Yorkers.

Drilling supporters and opposition press their case as Cuomo visits

Isaac Silberman-Gorn, a member of Citizens Action, left, and Walter Hang, of Toxics Targeting, right, join anti-fracking protesters on the Binghamton University campus Thursday morning. JEFF RICHARDS / CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

VESTAL — While Gov. Andrew Cuomo came to Binghamton University on Thursday to tout his Tax-Free NY initiative, about 50 protesters were focused on another topic: shale gas fracking.

The protesters camped outside the University Union East building, where Cuomo spoke, and held signs voicing their opposition to fracking in New York, often chanting anti-drilling slogans.

“This can not be done safely, and we don’t want it here in our community,” said Isaac Silberman-Gorn, environmental organizer at Citizen Action of New York.

While the opposition was pressing its case at Cuomo’s local appearance, landowner groups were trying to rally support in Albany. The state’s largest coalition of pro-drilling landowners hosted a forum Thursday, making the case for the soundness of hydraulic fracturing to an audience that featured lawmakers from both houses.

The panel discussion was billed as a response to Cuomo’s recent criticism of pro-fracking groups for not doing more to educate the public and allay concerns raised over the safety of shale-gas drilling.

Last week, Cuomo said he will make a decision on the fate of natural gas drilling in New York before the 2014 election. The governor is awaiting the completion of a review by State Health Commissioner Nirav Shah.

Though Cuomo’s presentation at BU was on his tax-free initiative, he addressed the fracking debate when pressed by reporters following his economic development talk. He repeated his common line on the topic, saying the decision is one that should be made based on science rather than emotion.

“The DEC commissioner and the health commissioner are analyzing the data and when they have a decision, that will be the decision and the path the state follows,” Cuomo said.

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, which is headquartered in Ithaca, said the health commissioner’s review is improper, as it is being completed without public input. “The governor is simply not listening.”

Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, said drilling can be done safely and it can help clean up the environment by offering a more cost-effective energy source. And, he added, it will create jobs in the region and increase tax revenues.

“If (Cuomo) goes with the science, we’ll have gas drilling in New York state,” he said.

Jon Campbell of the Gannett Albany Bureau contributed to this report.

Activists Write Governor Cuomo on Health Impact Study

Anti-fracking activists continue to barrage Governor Cuomo with calls for a health impact study of the drilling process.

More than a thousand letters requesting the study have been sent within the last week, according to Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting. He believes that such letters are the main reason that there are no frack shale wells in New York.

"They demonstrate an intimate knowledge of the bureaucracy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.They reflect a very powerful understanding of the politics of New York State. And combined with your efforts to educate New Yorkers about what's at stake, that's what's held up fracking in New York," said President of Toxics Targeting, Walter Hang.

Hang and Binghamton Mayor Matt Ryan made their call Monday afternoon in front of Government Plaza in downtown Binghamton.

Fracking Protesters Send Message to Governor

View Video

Governor Cuomo stayed silent on the issue of fracking during his State of the State Address today. Judging by the crowd in the halls leading to Cuomo's speech, he was one of the few who did.

"I've worked here for 35 years. I've never seen this kind of demonstration. It is an unmistakable message to the Governor - 'Don't go forward with fracking,'" said Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting.

"$500 million or more has been spend on the GEISs (Generic Environmental Impact Statements). It's time to move forward," said landowner Vic Furman of Chenango Forks.

With public comment on the state's Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement ending Friday, anti-fracking activists pushed their message on one of the highest-profile days of the state's political calendar.

"Governor Cuomo, that is shameful. Your state scientists and health professionals are calling on you. Enough with the improvisational, ad hoc, made-up studies that serve to justify a public health atrocity," said author and ecologist Dr. Sandra Steingraber.

But landowners who want to see the state allow fracking had a message of their own - it's time to allow the drilling practice in New York State.

"I just sold my cows in the Spring because milk doesn't pay. We need to drill, we need to come up with some money somewhere so we can rebuild and recharge our farms and this is our answer. It's our property. We sell our assest. We restart," said Anthony Tavelli, a dairy farmer from Speedsville, NY.

****In Albany, Jason Weinstein, Fox 40 HD News****

Fracking opponents want broad health review

Hang rips DEC over old wells

Fracking opponents target Cuomo supporters

In an effort to get the ear of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, opponents of hydraulic fracturing in the Southern Tier have penned a letter to 1,000 of his closest friends.

Binghamton Mayor Matthew T. Ryan and others who have concerns about the natural gas extraction technique gathered in front of Binghamton City Hall on Wednesday to discuss a letter they sent to the 1,000 largest contributors to Cuomo’s campaign fund.

“These are essentially many of the most prominent people in New York State politics,” said Walter Hang, an Ithaca activist and owner of environmental database firm Toxics Targeting. “We believe that this is going to force the governor to listen to many of the concerns that have been introduced up until now.”

The letter comes in response to a leaked report out of Albany last month indicating that officials are considering issuing an initial round of permits for hydrofracking only in pro-drilling communities within Broome, Tioga, Chenango, Chemung and Steuben counties.

Ryan said he signed on to the letter to urge Cuomo not to factor politics into his decisions on fracking, which has been on hold in New York since the state Department of Environmental Conservation began studying the technique in 2008.

“(Cuomo) originally said this was going to be based on science...and now all of the sudden he’s floating the idea of having a place where we’re going to try this technology out,” he said. “I don’t think that those two things are really compatible.”

The one-page letter sent to Cuomo’s donors states that the proposal “would treat Southern Tier residents as second class citizens and unfairly subject them to potentially irreparable hazards.” Along with Ryan and Hang, it is co-signed by leaders of three Southern Tier anti-drilling groups.

In recent months, at least nine of Broome County’s 16 town boards have passed identical resolutions expressing confidence that DEC “will develop a program that allows development of our natural gas resources to proceed in a safe, responsible, and competitive manner."

Those resolutions have stirred some measure of controversy as well. At a separate news conference Wednesday, five opponents of natural gas drilling from the towns of Windsor, Barker, Sanford and Triangle argued that they don’t represent the opinion of the majority of residents in those communities.

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Idea of limited NY fracking divides energy camps

ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Landowners along New York's southern border who support natural gas drilling are cheered by reports that the Cuomo administration is considering allowing hydraulic fracturing on a limited basis in towns that want it, though opponents call the idea "shameful."

The administration is pursuing a plan to limit the controversial shale gas drilling technology to portions of Broome, Chenango, Steuben and Tioga counties, The New York Times quoted a senior official at the state Department of Environmental Conservation as saying, along with others with knowledge of the situation. That region, along the border with heavily drilled Pennsylvania, is considered most likely to yield significant quantities of natural gas in New York.

The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, which is seeking to lease land for drilling, has persuaded several dozen towns to pass resolutions supporting drilling. Many more towns have passed bans or moratoriums on drilling.

"We're encouraged. It appears as though the administration is trying to move the ball forward," Dan Fitzsimmons, who heads the landowner group, told The Associated Press on Wednesday. "There are many communities that are eager to proceed. We've always believed that drilling can be done in an environmentally sound way and that it would be a huge benefit to the economy."

The Times reported that officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because deliberations are continuing.

Cuomo and Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens have declined to give a specific timetable for completion of the environmental review and haven't said definitively whether fracking will be allowed in New York.

"No final decision has been made and no decision will be made until the scientific review is complete and we have all the facts," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said Wednesday.

Numerous environmental, health, and community groups are seeking a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which frees gas from shale by injecting a well with millions of gallons of chemically treated water at immense pressure. Opponents of drilling and fracking in the vast Marcellus Shale formation underlying parts of New York, Pennsylvania and other states cite risks of water and air pollution.

"It's absolutely unconscionable that the governor would even think about exposing some New Yorkers to fracking hazards while protecting others," said Walter Hang of Toxics Targeting. "There should be no second-class citizens when it comes to shale gas fracking in New York."

A coalition of scientists, physicians, environmentalists and elected officials has gathered more than 2,300 signatures on a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo opposing plans for any demonstration project or other plan to allow shale gas development on a limited basis. Proponents have suggested such a plan as an alternative to wide-scale development.

"Partitioning our state into frack and no-frack zones based on economic desperation is a shameful idea, and we will actively oppose its implementation," said Sandra Steingraber, founder of New Yorkers Against Fracking.

The state has not permitted shale gas development using horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracturing since it began an environmental review in 2008. The review, and new regulations, are expected to be completed this year.

"Certainly it's good news that the administration is looking to begin the permitting process," said Sen. Thomas Libous, a Republican whose Southern Tier district includes most of the territory sought for hydrofracking.

"Obviously, as I've said in the past, there are a number of communities that would welcome it and are very open to it," Libous told the AP. "The only caution is that if I look at my overall district, I have about 22 towns and villages that have already passed some sort of resolution to be supportive of natural gas drilling, but I have over all some 30,000 landowners who certainly have identical rights over whether or not they would want to sign leases to move forward."

"Our position is anything that moves the issue forward is a good sign," said Jim Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York. "We would support a program that allows industry to prove what we've been saying all along — that drilling can be done safely in New York."

EPA weighs in on hydrofracking in N.Y.

ALBANY -- The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is urging New York regulators to take steps to bolster the state's proposed hydraulic fracturing rules, providing a meticulous, line-by-line critique of its 1,500-page report.

Beating a midnight Wednesday deadline to submit comments by less than three hours, the federal agency recommended dozens of ways for the Department of Environmental Conservation to strengthen its hydrofracking proposals. Those suggestions include beefing up a ban on the technique within two major water supplies and taking a closer look at naturally occurring radioactive material found in gas-drilling waste.

But while the EPA's comments included plenty of critiques, the agency took a much gentler tone than in its December 2009 letter to state regulators. Then, the federal regulators blasted a previous draft report for not taking a strong enough look at the impact of a gas-drilling boom.

"New York has demonstrated leadership with this issue and will help set the pace for improved safeguards across the country," EPA Region 2 Administrator Judith Enck wrote in a brief cover letter.

Enck, who was appointed to her post in 2009, served in then-Gov. David Paterson's administration when the state put high-volume hydrofracking on hold in 2008 while the DEC undertook a thorough review. The technique, when combined with gas drilling, involves the use of water, sand and chemicals injected deep underground to unlock natural gas from shale formations, such as the Marcellus Shale spanning the Southern Tier and parts of the Catskills.

The EPA's most recent comments left plenty of room for interpretation from lobbying groups on both sides of the contentious gas-drilling debate.

Environmental organizations latched on to 26 pages of EPA suggestions, including a request to further clarify plans to deal with hydrofracking wastewater and to complete further study of the impact of pipelines and other infrastructure associated with gas drilling.

The EPA found "significant flaws in the state's fracking proposals," according to a statement released by the New York Water Rangers, a coalition of environmental groups.

"EPA identifies literally hundreds of critical concerns regarding virtually every aspect of the revised draft (DEC report)," said Walter Hang, an Ithaca activist and owner of environmental database firm Toxics Targeting.

Gas industry trade groups were encouraged by Enck's cover letter, which highlighted natural gas' "key role in our nation's clean energy future."

Many of the EPA's suggestions are sure to draw the industry's ire, however, including the expansion of a ban within 4,000 feet of the New York City and Syracuse watersheds to include all forms of hydrofracking regardless of volume. As it stands, the ban would apply only to hydrofracking operations using less than 300,000 gallons of fluid.

"Some of the (DEC's) recommendations in the watersheds are not justified by the science," said Karen Moreau, executive director of the state Petroleum Council, a lobbying group. "We certainly would not be in favor of adding further restrictions on those property owners who own mineral rights in those watersheds."

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens said his agency will thoroughly review the EPA's comments and make changes to his department's hydrofracking proposals as needed.

But high-volume hydrofracking bans in the two watersheds, as well as setbacks and prohibitions within aquifers and other water supplies, were based on firm technical study, he said. The department's current draft recommendations only apply to hydrofracking operations with more than 300,000 gallons; lower volumes are covered under a 1992 environmental impact study.

"I don't think the level of concerns are anywhere near what they are for conventional, low-volume fracking as they are for high-volume hydrofracking," Martens said in an interview.

The EPA's response was just one of an estimated 40,000 received during a four-month comment period, according to the DEC. Before high-volume hydrofracking is given the green light in New York, the DEC has to reply to any substantive issues raised in the comments with a "responsiveness summary," and its report must be finalized.

The review of comments, Martens said, is expected to take "months," but the agency maintains it will be finished sometime in 2012.

Residents fault DEC over claims of gas drilling impact on water wells

Ithaca -- Landowners who believe their drinking water has been affected by drilling activity in central and western New York said they have had trouble getting the state Department of Environmental Conservation to thoroughly investigate their cases.

David and Kelly Ferrugia, a couple in Chautauqua County in the far western tip of the state, have been unable to get their questions answered about why their water quality changed six years ago.

Fred Mayer of Candor is also without an explanation as to why his well began producing methane three years ago, after a gas exploration company dynamited a hill on his 96-acre property.

The DEC investigated the two cases and determined there was no contamination caused by natural gas drilling, and drilling has been the cause in only a small fraction of reported contamination cases across the state, an agency spokeswoman said.

Still, Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton said the problems Mayer and the Ferrugias' have had illustrate a wider problem with the DEC's responsiveness to potential drilling issues.

"Clearly there are very significant cases," said Lifton, D-Ithaca. "The DEC has walked away from its responsibilities. They did not do a full investigation there."

Though suspected to be linked to conventional vertical drilling rather than horizontal hydraulic fracturing, Lifton said these cases indicate that the state is not prepared to regulate the drilling industry.

"It belies the statement that the DEC keeps making that there aren't problems, that the process is safe," she said. "(The Ferrugias) have been on bottled water since 2005. Imagine what that does for your property value."

The DEC responded to questions from this newspaper about how the agency responds to claims of drinking water contamination due to natural gas drilling.

"DEC takes claims of possible drinking water contamination very seriously," said Emily DeSantis, assistant director of public information. DeSantis said the DEC staff reviews files and well records, performs site inspections, speaks with landowners and reviews water well testing information when it is available, as well as contact water well drillers. Additional tests may be performed as needed.

However, the incidence of that kind of contamination is rare, according to DEC records. Of 14,642 total spills reported in 2009, eight were determined to be related to oil and gas activities, or 0.05 percent. Of 13,486 in 2010, six were related to oil and gas activities, and of 12,297 in 2011, five were related to oil and gas activities, or 0.04 percent in each year.

Ignitable water

Fred Mayer, a long-time resident of Back West Creek Road in Candor, said his well was drilled in 1962, the same year he moved onto the property.

Three years ago, a gas exploration company dynamited a hill on his property searching for gas. He had signed a lease on the land for drilling, he said, though right now the nearest gas well is several miles away.

Around the same time as the dynamiting, Mayer noticed air would be forced out of faucets in the house. His father suspected it was a faulty pump, but one day Mayer tried to light it. The gas burned.

"I suspect it's from drilling, because we never had the gas in our water," he said.

Mayer spoke with a representative of the state attorney general's office in early 2010. But Mayer said he has been unable to elicit an investigation, acknowledgement of responsibility, or other plausible explanation for the contamination from the company, the DEC, or the Tioga County Department of Health.

DEC disputes connection

DeSantis said DEC staff did not visit Mayer's home due to the distance of his property from adjacent gas wells, which are five and seven miles away from his home, and both of which are dry. There is also a record of naturally occurring methane in his area, she said. The DEC determined this was the cause of the contamination of his water well.

"Mayer's reference to dynamite is most likely related to seismic data acquisition," DeSantis said. "Seismic data acquisition is not associated with any drilling or production method ... The timing and location of seismic surveys is independent of drilling activity. Surveys may be conducted years and sometimes longer in advance of any drilling. It is also not a DEC-regulated activity."

Without a baseline water analysis of Mayer's well, it cannot be determined if seismic data acquisition caused methane to appear in his well, DeSantis said.

Water and gas wells

The Ferrugias built a house in Kiantone, Chautauqua County in 2000. The couple collects royalty checks from 10 vertical wells around the property, two of them within 1,000 feet of the Ferrugias' water well. The closest well was completed in September 2005, 330 feet from the water well, according to the Chautaqua County Department of Health.

Nornew Inc. sampled the Ferrugias' water before drilling the well. David Ferrugia said the water was very soft.

Within a few weeks of the gas well's completion, David Ferrugia said the couple began noticing a difference in their water. Changes included pitting in glasses in the dishwasher, brown mineral staining of water fixtures and tubs, a salty taste, and an intermittent sulfur smell.

"It wasn't an abrupt change," Ferrugia said. "It was a gradual change. We started noticing a slight smell. In the following weeks it started getting worse and worse."

Tests show increases

Nornew Inc. tested the water again in April 2007.

According to the results from Microbac Labs independent of Nornew Inc., chloride, barium, sodium, magnesium, potassium, and calcium levels all increased, some of them by factors close to 10. Total dissolved solids increased from 250 parts per million to 600 parts per million. Barium increased from 0.181 ppm to 1.12 ppm, while sodium increased from 76.4 ppm to 111 ppm. Chloride went from 3.8 ppm to 223 ppm.

The Ferrugias filed their complaint with the Chautauqua County Department of Health in May 2007. David Ferrugia said they went to the Health Department after approaching Nornew Inc., but the company representative they spoke to attributed the problem either to the Ferrugias' septic system or road de-icing material. The change in water quality was not due to drilling, he told them.

Other causes suggested

Chautauqua County Water Resource Specialist William Boria wrote to DEC Director of the Bureau of Oil and Gas Regulation Jack Dahl in June 2009, stating he doubted other causes for the contamination.

"In the Ferrugias' case, the evidence strongly indicates the contamination is from brine," he said in the letter.

"This is a well-documented case showing drinking water impacts that are seemingly related to gas well development. Based on our (memorandum of understanding) with NYS DEC, the Chautauqua County Department of Health requests that your Division thoroughly investigate to identify the cause of contamination and assist the Ferrugias in correcting their water quality problems."

Last week, Boria said he is not totally convinced the cause of the contamination was the well drilling, but that there is enough evidence that the case bears further investigation.

"I pushed for more investigation," he said. "It's very difficult to conclude that the gas well did cause the problem with the information at hand. I wanted a little bit more invasive investigation at the well head."

Boria said he suspects mud from the drilling process seeped along via cracks in the surface of the bedrock. He said there are some ways the DEC could investigate that possibility.

But Dahl suggested in a letter in response to Chautauqua County that several issues could have caused the Ferrugias' well contamination. Possible causes included hydraulic fracturing of the water well, leading to a pathway for contaminants to come from greater distances to the well, from the Ferrugias' septic system, or from neighboring water wells.

DEC doubts drilling impact

DeSantis said DEC records indicate site inspections following the Ferrugias' complaint showed no evidence of a spill or violation. The DEC also spoke to adjacent landowners and examined baseline water well testing data. Interviews with landowners revealed that "mineralized 'bad water'" was present in wells in the area before the nearby gas well was drilled. Testing did reveal coliform bacteria in the Ferrugia's well, and two of their neighbors' water supply wells. Recent testing shows the chloride level in the Ferrugias' well has dropped 45 percent, DeSantis noted.

DeSantis said the investigation ended with a determination that the contamination was due to the way the water well was drilled -- using hydrofracking in shale.

"DEC concluded the well water has the characteristics of mineralized shale waters, because the water well was drilled and fractured in shale," DeSantis said. The well was not contaminated with brine, she said.

DeSantis also noted that the DEC does not propose to permit drilling where the shale target layer is in the drinking water aquifer or less than 1,000 feet below it.

Nornew responds

Nornew Inc. Executive Vice President Dennis Holbrook said any claims about contaminated wells not supported by the DEC should be viewed with skepticism.

He said, "Our experience has been -- and I know it seems the industry is always saying, 'Oh don't worry about it' -- people have problems with their wells that have nothing to do with oil and gas drilling."

Holbrook said the company's policy is to test an area within 1,000 feet of a drinking water well, using a third-party company such as Microbac Labs to do the testing. In addition, he said the DEC did spend some time investigating the matter.

Holbrook said in his experience the DEC is "pretty conscientious in going out and investigating these things. They have the technology to base these decisions on science, not on emotions." He said the investigation concluded there may have been an issue with the way the couple's water well was completed.

"But typically, if there was a problem, we would take responsibility, no different than we take responsibility to restore the surface after drilling," he said.

Close to 500 wells were drilled by Nornew in the region around Chautauqua County, Holbrook said. He questioned why the Ferrugias' neighbors wouldn't have had the same problems they reported, and why it took so long for the problems to develop after the well was drilled -- about 18 months.

A red flag?

However, contamination expert Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting in Ithaca, said he is convinced the contamination should be attributed to the vertical gas well just 110 yards from the water well. Most importantly, he said, the record of water well contaminations possibly caused by drilling in Chautauqua County, most of them dating to the 1980s, "directly refutes the DEC's assertions that we have just never had problems."

Boria notes that the county had no water well complaints during the 1990s, when there was no drilling activity in the county. In 2000, when drilling started again, so did complaints, about one to two a year, he said.

Hang said, "I think the key thing is that the local health department, which has investigated this matter, essentially said this is a well-documented case showing drinking water impacts that are seemingly related to gas well development, but the DEC simply refuses to acknowledge the concern, investigate the concern, or provide clean water to the family."

Liz Thomas, a member of the Tompkins County Council of Governments' Gas Drilling Task Force, said one of the great frustrations of those working on gas drilling issues in the county is that it's very difficult to know where problems exist.

The DEC keeps records of drilling violations in paper form rather than electronically, and older, abandoned wells aren't mapped, Thomas said.

"It's hard for homeowners to know even to test because they can't find records of violations," she said.

Health Departments' role

The Ferrugias and Mayer are stuck -- despite having their well tested by the company before and after drilling, and despite having their county health department's support in approaching the DEC for help, they have received no acknowledgement from either Nornew, Inc. or the DEC that the degradation of their water may have been caused by drilling.

Tompkins County Health Director Frank Kruppa said the authority of county health departments in cases of potential water well contamination due to drilling will depend on the state's draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement.

"The well drilling issue is still very much up in the air," he said. "The main message is we are here to take any complaints ... but specific to well drilling, we are still trying to get through our review of the impact statement and regulations to be sure there are authority and resources available to local health departments."

Kruppa said a funding mechanism to help in clean-up efforts is another priority. As for whether testing water before and after drilling can be considered a dependable protection, considering the Ferrugias' situation, Kruppa said he could not comment on their specific situation. Documents related to the Ferrugias' case and water well contamination reports in Chautauqua County can be found at

War Room protest: ‘No fracking way’

Leaked EPA Documents Expose Decades-Old Effort To Hide Dangers of Natural Gas Extraction

Efforts by lawmakers and regulators to force the federal government to better police the natural gas drilling process known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking" have been thwarted for the past 25 years, according to an expose in the New York Times. Studies by scientists at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on fracking have been repeatedly narrowed in scope by superiors and important findings have been removed under pressure from the industry. The news comes as the EPA is conducting a broad study of the risks of natural gas drilling with preliminary results scheduled to be delivered next year. Joining us is Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, a firm that tracks environmental spills and releases across the country based in Ithaca, New York, where fracking is currently taking place.

Regulation Lax as Gas Wells’ Tainted Water Hits Rivers

Arcuri joins call to withdraw DEC drilling statement

TRUMANSBURG -- Congressman Michael A. Arcuri has literally signed on to an effort activists believe will ensure safer natural-gas drilling in New York.

Arcuri put his name on the "Withdraw the Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) Coalition Letter," Monday afternoon at the Taughannock Falls overlook. The letter, composed by Toxics Targeting President Walter Hang, was sent to Gov. David Paterson and the state Department of Environmental Conservation.

About a dozen people were on hand for Arcuri's visit, including Hang, Ulysses Supervisor Roxanne Marino, Trumansburg Mayor Martin Petrovic, Tompkins County Legislature Chair Martha Robertson, and a number of environmental activists.

Arcuri, a Utica Democrat seeking a third term from the 24th District, signed the letter because he believes that the SGEIS doesn't go far enough to protect the environment and public from the potential hazards from natural gas drilling, according to a statement from his office. The DEC issued the draft SGEIS in September to analyze the effects of shale gas development using horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

More than 10,000 people have signed the letter, which will be re-sent to Paterson with Arcuri's signature, Hang said. He culled through tens of thousands of DEC spill reports and found that fires, explosions, wastewater discharge and water contamination had occurred in areas where drilling and hydrofracking had been done, he added.

Arcuri's opponent, businessman Richard Hanna, said last week the does not support hydraulic fracturing but the decision should left to science.

"What we're asking is, ... let's take a step back, let's pump the brakes a little bit and let's make sure before we take this dramatic step forward, that we're taking every possible precaution," Arcuri said.

While commending Paterson's budget efforts, Arcuri stressed that cutting DEC funding when there may be increased drilling is "a recipe for disaster," and drilling licensing fees are supposed to pay for DEC staff who ensure safe drilling.

We need gas and oil, but while we can live without those things, we can't live without water, he added.

Arcuri's signature is important because his district includes a huge part of the shale formation, Hang said.

Cuomo, gas drilling activists meet in Ithaca

ITHACA -- Andrew Cuomo made the campaign rounds through the Finger Lakes and Southern Tier on Thursday, promoting his call for reform in Albany.

While here, the Democratic candidate for governor heard from many promoting the need to prevent natural gas drilling in the region's Marcellus Shale.

Cuomo spoke in Ithaca and in Montour Falls on Thursday, finding natural gas protesters at both sites, especially in Ithaca.

One was dressed in a hazardous material suit marked with the phrase "Inspector for 1,000 wells" and holding a "box of loopholes." Another held an empty leash and a sign that read "My dog drank the water."

In a gathering on The Ithaca Commons before Cuomo's scheduled appearance, Toxics Targeting president and gas drilling activist Walter Hang congratulated local activists for helping to put the brakes on drilling.

"The longer we push this off, the longer the de facto moratorium on gas drilling stays in place," Hang said.

He held up a recent letter from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency outlining significant concerns with the scope and content of the state Department of Conservation's environmental impact statement draft under review.

"This could be our salvation," Hang said. "We've got to kill the draft with the EPA's help."

Cuomo said he was expecting such a reaction.

The state Attorney General said he spent the drive down from Geneva to Ithaca trying to explain to his daughters -- Maria and Cara, 15 and Michaela, 12 -- the history and ethics of Ithaca, where "people like to question authority.

"And then we pulled into town and it was all said for me," Cuomo said, referring to the mass of hydraulic fracturing protesters who lined the streets and surrounded the Women's Community Building, where he spoke.

His "wait and see what the studies say" stance on the gas drilling issue did not seem to satisfy those who swarmed around him afterward, but he did try to appeal to their spirit of activism.

A leader in several major reform movements, including women's suffrage and worker's rights, New York must "raise the progressive beacon once again," Cuomo said.

"You want to know when things are going to change? They are going to change when the people of this state demand change," Cuomo said. "You know this better in Ithaca than anyone: Activism counts. We need to mobilize; we need to make people get engaged."

Most of Cuomo's 15 minutes at the podium were devoted to pushing his reform agenda.

He vowed to clean up the ethical mess in Albany, get the state's fiscal house in order and regain the trust of its people.

Cuomo said he opposed raising taxes, both on property and income, arguing that the state must deal with its spending rather than rely on raising revenue.

"I'm not in favor of raising taxes; I think it's irresponsible," he said.

He would start by downsizing, both internally and throughout the state, and said he is a proponent of municipal mergers and consolidation.

"There are around 1,000 state agencies now -- we think. No one is really sure," Cuomo said. "When you don't even know how many agencies you have, you have too many agencies."

Asked afterward about his vow to push for campaign finance reform while still accepting large campaign contributions, Cuomo replied: "I want to reform the campaign finance system. To do that, I have to get elected. To get elected, I have to raise money."

Cuomo wants 'the facts' before moving forward on natural gas drilling

Anti-drilling protesters greet gubernatorial candidate in Binghamton

BINGHAMTON -- About 50 people gathered outside the State Office Building Wednesday, demanding answers from Attorney General and Democratic gubernatorial candidate Andrew Cuomo on where he stands on drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale formation.

They left unsatisfied.

Cuomo was in town to announce an investigation into predatory health care lenders and finances, of which his office has received numerous complaints as the economy turned sour.

The protesters, however, were more interested in the Attorney General's take on one of the biggest issues in the Southern Tier. Cuomo's appearance came the day after the state Senate passed a bill that would place a moratorium on hydraulic fracturing until May 15, 2011.

The state has already put high-volume hydraulic fracturing -- a practice in which a mix of water, sand and chemicals are blasted deep underground to break up the shale and release natural gas -- on hold as the state Department of Environmental Conservation reviews its regulations on the process. The DEC is expected to release those regulations -- known as the supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (sGEIS) -- by the end of the year.

"Andrew Cuomo has not taken a sufficiently strong position on this matter," said Walter Hang, an Ithaca database specialist who organized the impromptu rally. "We want him to withdraw the draft sGEIS. We want him to do more than say it ought to be studied before it happens. We want him to come back to the (Southern Tier), meet with citizens, and talk with them about their concerns."

Speaking after the press conference, Cuomo told reporters he believes gas drilling can be practiced safely, but said the state shouldn't move forward until it "knows all of the facts."

"I think, on the hydro-fracking issue, there is a potential for economic development for the Southern Tier of New York, and that has a lot of people excited," Cuomo said. "This state needs jobs desperately, and getting jobs back to the state, getting the economy running, is very, very important. At the same time, we want to make sure that whatever we do we do it safely, we do it efficiently, we do it effectively."

Cuomo did not offer his position on the Senate bill because there "is a possibility for lawsuits" and he wants "to be careful about offering a personal opinion that may conflict with a legal opinion," he said. He did say, however, that he "agrees with the concept of moratorium."

"Let me say this: Before we drill, should we make sure we are doing it safely? Yes. That's what they mean by moratorium," Cuomo said. "Moratorium by May? I don't know if May is the right date. May may be too early. May may be too late. That's why they call it May."

That wasn't enough for Kim Michels, an Afton resident who was one of seven protesters who went inside for the press conference, anti-fracking signs in hand. Michels approached Cuomo after the event and asked for his position on the Senate moratorium.

"He didn't exactly give me an answer," she said. "I think if he was for it, he would have said so. But I sort of got a wishy-washy answer from him, and I told him how I felt about (the bill)."

Hang said his team of protesters will be keeping a close eye on Cuomo.

"We're going to bird-dog this candidate in every community where he shows his face," Hang said. "We're going to write him very respectfully, because the (Attorney General's Office) has a long history of protecting the citizens from drilling problems."

Activist challenges DEC claim of few gas drilling problems

The state's assertion that natural gas production is a clean, well-regulated industry has been called into question by memos from a health official working in drilling communities in western New York.

William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, reported his agency has received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with nearby drilling operations. The cases correspond to a time when the industry took root in western New York decades ago, according to Boria, and continue through the last few years.

"Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred," Boria stated in a 2004 memo summarizing the issue. County health officials tabulated information on 53 of the cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet, including one where a home was evacuated after the water well exploded.

A separate case filed with the health department in Allegheny County found a residential well contaminated with oil last year during natural gas drilling operations nearby. The drilling company, U.S. Energy Development Corp., installed a water filtration system at the home, put the residents up in a motel and offered compensation, according to a memo from the company to the DEC.

Data and memos were obtained from the county health agencies through the Freedom of Information Law by Walter Hang, a database specialist in Ithaca.

The cases do not appear on a database kept by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to track problems and complaints related to spills and pollution.

The volume of cases may be small or not so small, depending on your view, but they pertain to a bigger question about transparency of the state's oversight of the industry. At several public information sessions on natural gas drilling in recent years, regulators from the Mineral Resources Division of the state Department of Environmental Conservation have characterized the industry as being problem-free in New York.

This issue is especially relevant as the DEC prepares final guidelines -- called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Study -- necessary to allow permitting for Marcellus Shale development to begin in New York.

Industry proponents say the document provides sufficient safeguards against risks from water pollution and other problems. Critics say it is too lax, especially to oversee the intensive type of horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing -- commonly called fracking -- necessary to develop the Marcellus.

DEC: Few Problems

At the center of the debate is an apparent disconnect between regulators' assertions that drilling problems are minimal, and complaints filed by residents living near rigs suggesting otherwise. It's become a theme in the larger debate about drilling.

Hang's firm, Toxic Targeting, compiles government environmental data for municipalities and engineers. In November, Hang released a list of 270 files, compiled from the DEC's own spills database, documenting cases of contamination and ecological damage involving oil and gas industry operations over the past 30 years.

Dangers ranged from methane migration -- which causes explosion hazards when gas collects in water wells and enclosed spaces -- to contamination from brine and other byproducts of drilling.

DEC Commissioner Pete Grannis responded with a letter to state elected officials stating Hang's analysis was overblown and taken out of context. More than half of the cases were unrelated to natural gas drilling, Grannis said, and they occurred while the DEC was overseeing 10,400 wells. Overall, DEC says, the number of problems related to drilling is disproportionately small compared to other causes.

The Grannis letter concluded: "Requirements in place since the 1980s have successfully rendered drilling associated methane migration so rare that there has not been a reported incident since 1996. ... When problems do occur, they are promptly and effectively addressed by DEC's spill response and Oil & Gas regulatory programs and staff."

There are those who take issue with that claim, citing more recent incidents of methane migration, as well as other problems.

One of those cases came to light last spring in Allegany County, near a non-Marcellus drilling operation by U.S. Energy Development Corporation.

Workers were fracking, a process that involves injecting a chemical solution under high pressure in the well bore to stimulate gas production, said Dave Eddy, who lives in a home near the gas well with his wife and two young children.

One night, his wife drew a bath for the kids and the faucet produced a foamy, chocolate-brown stream, he said.

Testing by the company found the well was polluted with gas, according to a letter to the DEC from Jerry Jones, operations manager at U.S. Energy. The company subsequently installed a filter on the home, put the family up in a hotel and offered compensation for the pollution, the letter states.

Wells Ruined

Recently, and closer to home, methane migration has been a problem with Marcellus production just south of the border, where a dozen wells were ruined near Cabot Oil & Gas drilling operations in Dimock Township, Pa. The Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection is holding Cabot responsible.

DEC officials have said their strong regulations and oversight will continue to prevent that type of problem in New York.

Data recorded by Boria, the Chautauqua County water resources specialist, shows problems related to methane and brine cropping up in wells and homes over the last 30 years.

"A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent," Boria said in his resulting memo. "However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling."

Over the years, relatively few gas wells have been developed in Broome compared to counties in western New York, but the issue of oversight will become more significant in the region with Marcellus Shale development. Some of the most promising geological parts of the Marcellus extend under the towns of Kirkwood, Binghamton and Conklin and Sanford.

If developed to its potential, the Marcellus is expected to create drilling far more widespread and intense than what has been seen in western New York.

Neither Boria nor Grannis were available for comment late last week. However, Yancey Roy, a spokesman for the DEC, said Friday the agency "will be able to talk about the issues raised once all appropriate staff have had time to review the material" compiled by Hang.

Chris Tucker, a spokesman for Energy in Depth, an industry group in Washington, D.C., questions the validity of Hang's views drawn from western New York. Although Boria's correspondence states that complaints have fallen regarding drilling activity in Chautauqua County, Tucker points to figures showing a surge in statewide natural gas production between 2000 and 2005 after a general decline in the 1990s. Tucker, responding over the holiday weekend by e-mail, did not have numbers specific to Chautauqua County, but he believes complaints may have fallen while production grew.

"My guess is that Mr. Hang wouldn't want you to focus too closely on that point," he said. "It doesn't fit all that well with his unifying theory of the universe."

He added: "To the extent that additional efforts can be made to promote more direct communication between the county and DEC on these matters, certainly those efforts should be pursued."

Need Assurances

A former organizer with the New York Public Interest Research Group. Hang has been an activist pushing to reform DEC regulations governing the gas industry. He says residents affected by drilling problems face an impossible burden of proof, and the DEC does nothing to help them.

"You've had these problems for 25 years," Hang said. "Time and time again, the DEC's Mineral resources turns a blind eye and says it's marsh gas, or doesn't even investigate. Local communities have been struggling with the problem on their own."

Hang is bothered by the fact that the Eddy case and other problems are not recorded in a database easily accessible and searchable by the public. He is also troubled by the DEC's failure to acknowledge them in their overall assessment of risks the agency presents to the public.

"In all fairness, there have been concerns voiced for decades," Hang said. "We need assurances that when these concerns come up, they will be addressed in a more comprehensive fashion."

Plan to send fracking wastewater near Keuka Lake is abandoned

A contentious plan to locate a wastewater disposal site in the Steuben County town of Pulteney is officially dead, although the company that proposed the project is leaving the door open for similar facilities in the future.

Chesapeake Energy sought approval to convert an abandoned natural gas well on the west side of Keuka Lake into a site that would accept more than 180,000 gallons of wastewater a day.

The wastewater is a byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing procedure, or hydrofracking, used to tap the Marcellus Shale natural gas formation.

Chesapeake's plans drew widespread resistance from local governments as well as residents in Pulteney and around Keuka Lake.

The company Tuesday submitted letters to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and state Department of Environmental Conservation, asking that its permit applications be withdrawn.

However, the decision to withdraw was not the result of public outcry, said David Spigelmyer, Chesapeake's vice president of government relations.

"We've been working on enhancing and developing our recycling program. There's no immediate need for us to have this permit," said Spigelmyer, who said the decision was also influenced by New York's moratorium on Marcellus Shale exploration.

"If we are able to develop Marcellus Shale in New York state, we wouldn't want to remove options from the table," he said. "It might be necessary to have disposal facilities in the future."

Underground injection wells are closely monitored by the EPA, and Chesapeake Energy is comfortable with their safety, Spigelmyer added.

The controversy tore into the fabric of the Keuka Lake community, said Pulteney Town Supervisor Bill Weber.

"It's done some damage to the community, too, that we need to repair. There was some mistrust," Weber said. "I wish there was some graceful way of telling all the people who were shouting that vocal opposition doesn't cut it with EPA and DEC. The most important thing is to open communications with the people involved and deal with it in a sensible fashion."

U.S. Rep. Eric Massa, D-Corning, disagreed.

Even though Chesapeake's letters to the regulatory agencies specifically said the decision to withdraw wasn't based on public outcry, Massa said he believes the opposition did make a difference.

"The concerned citizens of the Finger Lakes showed everyone that a strong grassroots movement can defy all odds and emerge victorious," Massa said in a prepared statement. "While some politicians may try to swoop in and take credit for today's news, clearly this victory belongs to the citizens that fought to protect the place they call home."

State Sen. George H. Winner Jr., R-Elmira, also applauded Chesapeake's decision to withdraw. And he said Marcellus Shale exploration should still be encouraged, but cautiously.

"Moving forward, I can't stress enough that our communities will always be best served by a careful, complete, serious, objective and thoughtful consideration of the future of the Marcellus Shale natural gas industry," Winner said in a news release.

Walter Hang, president of Ithaca-based Toxics Targeting Inc., has been working with Pulteney residents on the wastewater issue.

Even with Chesapeake's decision, the Pulteney saga proves this is a problem that has not been adequately addressed by DEC and others, Hang said.

"That was obviously a ridiculously bad location to put a deep well injection facility," he said. "Why would you ship that water hundreds of miles to the middle of nowhere and move it to within a mile of this historic jewel of a Finger Lake?"

For Pulteney, at least, that is now a moot point, and residents are relieved and happy.

"The citizens' resounding grassroots movement showed that a billion-dollar corporation couldn't have their way," said Jeff Andrysick of Gallagher Road in Pulteney. "I think this was not only a Pulteney, but a lake-wide, movement.

"I've never seen citizens around this lake more united on any issue. All of Pulteney is going to celebrate tonight."

Tioga County man blames nearby gas drilling for polluting his well

Candor, NY -- Fred Mayer holds a lighter to his faucet, lets the water run, and — pow — the flow ignites into a small fireball. “I can wash my dishes and poach an egg at the same time,” he joked.

But it’s no laughing matter. Mayer’s faucets spew natural gas. The gas has polluted his water supply, forcing Mayer to buy bottled water to drink. If enough gas builds up in his faucets or walls, scientists warn, Mayer’s house could explode.

Outside, the stream where Mayer once caught trout, minnows and crayfish bubbles and spurts, Mayer said. The stream is belching gas. The fish are mostly dead, he said.

Mayer, 59, a disabled Vietnam veteran, lives in Candor, a rural town in Tioga County, between Ithaca and Binghamton. He has lived in the same house since 1962. He has used the same drinking water well since 1966. The problems with his water started about three years ago, he said.

Mayer blames his flammable faucet on natural gas drilling near his home. Fortuna Energy Inc., the largest natural-gas company in New York, began drilling in Tioga County in late 2003, company lawyer and spokesman Mark Scheuerman said.

“I never had a problem,” Mayer said. “The gas wasn’t here before. Then all of a sudden the drilling starts happening and wham, bam.”

Fortuna denies any link between Mayer’s water problems and the company’s drilling. The state Department of Environmental Conservation, although it never visited Mayer’s home, concluded the gas was naturally occurring and decided no investigation was needed. Independent scientists say the cause of the gas might never be known.

Natural gas trapped in shale formations buried deep underground can seep into pipes and homes naturally, said William Kappel, a hydrogeologist with the U.S. Geological Survey. But there have been documented cases where drilling has released gas that has migrated into wells and bodies of water miles away, he said.

“There’s no smoking gun either way on this,” Kappel said. “It’s very difficult to assess cause and effect. The potential for gas migration (from drilling) is generally pretty small ... but it’s not impossible.”

There’s no drilling on Mayer’s property or even next door. The closest gas wells are 5 and 7 miles away, according to the DEC. The one 7 miles away has not yielded any gas since it was drilled in 2006, said Yancey Roy, who speaks for the DEC. “It is highly improbable that other wells located more than 7 miles away caused Mr. Mayer’s problem,” Roy said.

Scheuerman said Fortuna operated “many successful wells” near Mayer’s home from 2004 to 2008, including in the Spencer and Owego areas. Spencer is about 8 miles west of Candor; Owego is about 10 miles south.

All of the wells tapped into the Trenton-Black River Formation. Scheuerman said his company used horizontal drilling to unleash the gas, but the DEC said no hydrofracking was used in the two wells closest to Mayer’s house. Fortuna has since stopped drilling in Spencer and into the Trenton-Black River Formation. No more wells are planned, Scheuerman said. “We are focused exclusively on development of the Marcellus Shale,” he said.

The DEC has prohibited drilling in the Marcellus Shale until an environmental review is complete. That is likely to be months away. But environmental advocates fear that without strict regulations on gas drilling and enough regulators to oversee the process, incidents like Mayer’s will become more common.

“I think he is an indication of the shortcomings of the regulatory situation,” said Walter Hang, of Toxics Targeting, an environmental group based in Ithaca. “When people report these problems, they don’t get the response the public would normally expect.”

Mayer called the DEC to report his ignitable water Jan. 26, 2009. He told agency officials he was concerned about natural gas drilling taking place near his home, according to a DEC report. The DEC told him to vent his well, the report says.

Mayer said the DEC never came to his house to investigate. Roy said the agency decided no investigation was needed because of the distance between Mayer’s house and the drilling, the timing of the complaint and the fact that no other residents closer to the drilling reported well contamination.

Roy said the DEC received a complaint about gas in a water well in Newark Valley, about 8 miles east of Candor, in July 1999. There was no natural-gas drilling taking place then in Tioga County or neighboring Broome County, he said. “This could indicate that the methane occurrence in Mr. Mayer’s well is not unique to his property or area,” Roy said. “Natural gas in water wells commonly occurs throughout the state.”

Roy said the DEC has received no other reports of gas contamination in the area of Mayer’s home, although he noted that the DEC would be aware of problems only if residents report them.

Officials with the Tioga County Health Department said they have received no complaints about well contamination.

The group Tioga Investigates Natural Gas — made up of representatives from the county Legislature, Council of Governments and several other civic, business and environmental agencies — notes on its Web site that “there is a community concern that private wells may be affected by the natural gas drilling.”

Kappel, of the USGS, said it’s possible for different wells to react differently to natural gas because of geology and water levels across an aquifer. Gas could seep into one well, while keeping clear of a neighboring well, he said. He also pointed out that changing water levels could cause more gas to evolve than when a well was drilled, leaving the door open to the possibility that Mayer’s gas problem is naturally occurring.

Mayer said he also complained to Fortuna. The company referred him to the DEC, he said.

Scheuerman said Fortuna records show that Mayer called in January but complained about lease payments, not water quality. Mayer’s father had signed a drilling lease with Fortuna before he died.

There has been no drilling on Mayer’s 97-acre property, but Mayer receives rental payments from Fortuna. Mayer said he renegotiated the terms in January to bump his payments from about $400 a year to about $57,000 a year.

Mayer said he was trying only to secure payments that fall in line with his neighbors’. He insists he complained to Fortuna about his water, as well.

Without spending thousands of dollars to fingerprint the gas in his well, Mayer will likely never find where it came from. But even answers, he said, wouldn’t calm his frustration and anger. “It’s very disheartening to me,” Mayer said, “knowing that the environment that I grew up in is going to pieces.”

6,000 sign petition asking DEC to strengthen natural gas-drilling regulations

An Ithaca environmental activist and 6,000 other individuals and organizations asked the governor Tuesday to withdraw the state's newly drafted regulations on natural gas drilling, saying the state's entire regulatory framework needs to be strengthened before more drilling occurs.

Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, is the activist who last month publicized 270 spill reports from the state Department of Environmental Conservation's own database, documenting well contamination and other environmental pollution related to the conventional, vertical gas drilling that has gone on in New York State for decades.

"DEC's own data document systematic, on-going failures to prevent oil and gas drilling pollution impacts or to clean them up. It is imperative that DEC resolve those regulatory shortcomings prior to issuing new drilling permits," the petition states.

Signatories include state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, U.S. Congressman Eric Massa, the National Resources Defense Council, Common Cause, Earthjustice, Earthworks, and the New York State Public Interest Research Group.

The Ithaca Town Board also voted unanimously Monday night to urge the governor to withdraw the regulations.

Meanwhile, as the Dec. 31 deadline for public comment on the DEC's regulations nears, a pro-drilling group is rallying supporters with their own petitions and form letters to the DEC.

The national pro-drilling advocacy group Energy In Depth this week urged its members to "share (their) views on the important role that responsible natural gas development can play in lifting the local economy and putting New Yorkers back to work."

"In just a single year, the state of Pennsylvania leveraged its share of the Marcellus into 29,000 high-wage jobs and $240 million in state and local taxes -- numbers that are expected to nearly double in the year to come," a sample letter says. "Similarly extraordinary opportunities lie ready to be realized right here in New York. According to one recent study, Broome County in the Southern Tier has enough natural gas within its boundaries to create 16,000 jobs and $14 billion in local economic activity."

Since Hang publicized the 270 spill reports recorded by DEC, he said he's been contacted by many individuals with wells or gas leases who are concerned about whether state regulations will adequately protect them.

One of those people is Laurie Lytle, a resident of Varick, Seneca County, who signed a gas lease with Chesapeake shortly after buying her home near Geneva in September 2006. By fall 2007, Chesapeake was drilling and hydro-fracturing (fracking) a vertical well in the Queenston formation, 660 feet from Lytle's property line, according to Lytle and a DEC representative.

The morning after the fracking occurred, Lytle said she was surprised to discover that her water was gray and full of sediment. She said she contacted Chesapeake and they told her it would stop in three to four days once the ground settled. After three days, Lytle said the sediment was gone, but the water was still cloudy. She contacted Chesapeake again and they agreed to install a water filter on her well.

Lytle kept copies of the check and invoice made out to her and her husband, signed by Chesapeake and describing the purpose of the money as "Damages."

Representatives from Chesapeake were unable to respond to questions about Lytle's complaint by press time Tuesday.

Lytle said she didn't think much more about the incident until she began seeing press reports related to the Marcellus Shale this fall. At her request, Chesapeake tested her water after the incident, but the company tested for only 12 basic substances such as total solids and e. coli bacteria, not the long list of chemicals that can be used in fracking fluid, she said.

"The main thing I would like to have happen is I would like to know what is in my water," Lytle said. "If there are chemicals in there that are of concern for my health and my family's health, I would like to have that remediated, so I would like them to take responsibility for handling that situation so I don't have to have that concern."

DEC Spokesman Yancey Roy said the DEC has a record of the Chesapeake well near Lytle's house -- but no record of a complaint, spill, or problem with Lytle's well.

"It is likely that if any turbidity was experienced in a nearby water well, it occurred when the well was being drilled -- not when it was hydraulically fractured. Also, turbidity essentially is stirred up sediment -- and problems with turbidity do not involve toxicity," Roy said by e-mail.

Lytle wasn't comforted by that explanation.

"Well if my well's contaminated with sediment, then obviously there's a pathway that water can seep in, and there may be chemicals in the water now," she said.

Hang said he was even more concerned that Chesapeake apparently didn't report the problem with Lytle's well to the DEC. DEC rigorously enforces regulations on petroleum spills, Hang said -- companies are required to report petroleum spills within two hours, and they can be assessed fines of $25,000 per day if they don't. There's nowhere near the rigor in reporting incidents related to gas drilling, Hang said.

"This really underscores that these problems are occurring, even though the DEC has said they've never had a single fracking incident. And it's not at all clear what these companies have to do as far as disclosing these problems, and it's not at all clear what they have to test for or do about them," he said.

Watchdog: New York State Regulation of Natural Gas Wells Has Been “Woefully Insufficient for Decades.”

The New York-based Toxics Targeting went through the Department of Environmental Conservation’s own database of hazardous substances spills over the past thirty years. They found 270 cases documenting fires, explosions, wastewater spills, well contamination and ecological damage related to gas drilling. Many of the cases remain unresolved. The findings are contrary to repeated government assurances that existing natural gas well regulations are sufficient to safeguard the environment and public health. The state is considering allowing for gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale watershed, the source of drinking water for 15 million people, including nine million New Yorkers.

Natural gas quest: State files show 270 drilling accidents in past 30 years

Walter Hang, president of Toxic Targeting, compiled the files using the Department of Environmental Conservation's own hazard substances spills database.

Hang runs an environmental research firm that sells data to interested parties, including engineers, consultants and municipalities. He also has a background as an environmental advocate, and he relishes the role as a public watchdog.

"We're students of how you clean this crap up," he said. "That's what we really care about."

DEC officials responded that the proportion of files relating to the oil and gas industry is small -- less than 0.1 percent -- of the total number of spills recorded on the database.

Hang said his company publicly released the list Monday to show regulation of the state's gas industry is "fundamentally inadequate."

"All we wanted to do is test the fundamental assessment the DEC often makes: Existing regulations are just fine," he said.

Fracking regulations

By Hang's assessment, they are a long way from fine. Only 60 of the 270 cases were actually caught by DEC regulators. Many were called in by residents, public safety officials, affected parties or "people who just stumbled over them," he said.

The complaints are related to traditional wells drilled through the decades, most of them in the Southern Tier and western New York.

They come to light as the state creates regulations for a new type of horizontal drilling that would be used to develop the Marcellus, the largest natural gas reserve in the country, running under the Southern Tier and throughout the Appalachian Basin. In addition to drilling horizontally through bedrock, Marcellus production requires a process called hydraulic fracturing -- pumping millions of gallons of water and chemical additives into wells under high pressure to fracture the bedrock and release gas.

The process would produce volumes of waste hundreds or thousands of times greater than what has been produced from traditional wells.

"I don't have anything against drilling, but we have enough pollution around here already, and this is going to be drilling on an unprecedented level," Hang said.

Debate over the merits and drawbacks of drilling has been fierce for the last 18 months, prompting DEC officials to suspend Marcellus permitting until it develops regulations for it. A public hearing on the proposal is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at Chenango Valley High School in the Town of Fenton.

One of the most commonly documented problems is methane migration, which means natural gas flows from production formations and goes places where it shouldn't, such as water wells, basements or barns.

In Dimock, Pa., state regulators have ordered Cabot Oil & Gas to replace 13 water supplies ruined by methane migration near drilling operations into the Marcellus. One well exploded.

DEC spills data show the problem has a history in New York, even without the Marcellus.

In Freedom, for example, 12 families were evacuated in 1999 after gas moved through a fault and surfaced in a neighborhood 1 1/2 miles away, bubbling up in ponds, ditches, barns, basements and yards. The disaster was caused by equipment failure on a drill rig, although no fines or penalties were recommended, according to the file from the DEC's spills database.

It's one of the 270 cases Hang highlights. Some are more recent.

In 2003, about 100,000 gallons of brine spilled, contaminating Shanada Creek in Independence after a valve broke, according to the record.

In May of this year, a 300-gallon diesel fuel spilled after an explosion and fire at a Nornew rig in Lebanon.

Accidents 'rare'

The DEC has determined regulations being crafted for horizontal drilling and fracking used in Marcellus production would not apply to traditional wells. Hang, holding the list of problems as Exhibit A, argues the entire regulatory process needs to be rebuilt from scratch.

"They say their existing regulations are completely adequate, and their own data clearly shows this isn't true," he said.

In public meetings about drilling on state land in the summer of 2005, DEC regulators presented slide shows emphasizing how effectively drill pads and pipelines are reclaimed as lush wildflower-filled fields and meadows after drilling, characterized as a short-term disturbance.

During public meetings crowded with residents concerned about the effects of Marcellus Shale production last year, representatives from the state's Division of Mineral Resources pointed to the industry's successful history in New York as evidence it was prepared for Marcellus development

Asked how local emergency responders could prepare for a spill, fire or explosion without knowing what chemicals are used in the hydraulic fracturing process, Linda Collart, regional supervisor with the DEC's Division of Mineral Resources, responded: "We don't anticipate any significant emergencies. ... These things are rare."

Asked whether the state was ready for an influx of new drilling activity beyond all historical comparisons, Collart responded: "We have been doing fine so far. ... No problems."

DEC officials, confronted with Hang's list late last week, stood by that assessment.

Dennis Farrar, chief of DEC's Emergency Response Spills Unit, said less than 300 instances out of more than 300,000 shows oil and gas issues are disproportionately small.

"In the scheme of things, this is not really a problem," Farrar said.

The agency also tracks problems through its Oil and Gas Division, said Jack Dahl, director for the Bureau of Oil & Gas Regulation. Late last week, he could not provide the number of complaints that division has responded to or the outcome.

More than three-quarters of oil and gas problems on the spills database were caught by somebody other than a DEC staff member, according to Hang's assessment. That's further evidence the Division of Mineral Resources -- with about 17 inspectors -- lacks the manpower to oversee traditional well development, let alone the Marcellus, he said.

As many as 2,000 to 4,000 Marcellus wells could be developed in Broome County in coming years, according to an economic development report commissioned by the county.

State regulators say they don't foresee problems.

"The question is, how often do they actively look for problems?" said Phil Sears of AKRF, a multidisciplinary environmental consulting firm based in New York City. "Not a whole lot."