Hydrofracking Update

Do you really hate your grandchildren that much?


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By Heather Helman

Dr. David Gould, the first speaker to address the EPA at their 6:00 p.m. public hearing September 13th in Binghampton, NY raised a startling question, and in that moment targeted what is perhaps the most controversial and central issue to the regulation of hydrofracking in this country: Will this process of natural gas extraction, while potentially economically beneficial in the short term, have devastating impacts on future generations? The public hearings held by the EPA on September 13th and 15th are a part of a federal attempt to begin the discourse  on the impacts of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking for short. Hydrofracking, for those who haven’t yet heard about it, is a method of extracting natural gas from shale formations. The process involves injecting highly pressurized water mixed with chemical additives into the shale, fracturing it so the natural gas can flow into the well. The water used for the process may come from surface water or ground water. After fracturing, the waste water is returned to the surface and stored until it is treated and recycled or simply disposed of. Many concerns currently exist about the safety of this process, especially with regard to drinking water supplies, as a multitude of water and air contamination cases from methane and fracking chemicals have already arisen. This process is especially contested due to its exemptions from key portions of the Clean Water, Clean Air, and Safe Drinking Water acts.

In September 2009, the NYS DEC released their Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS) amid much public debate over the merits and drawbacks of hydrofracking. The GEIS statement has proved at this time to be a massive failure. At the September 13th 2010 hearing, the EPA acknowledged this as one major reason behind conducting their upcoming study. The study itself is a research initiative to specifically examine the relationship between hydrofracking and drinking water-however, many other aspects of the hydrofracking process will be examined during the course of the study. Four key approaches to addressing the research questions at hand have been proposed: (1) Compile and analyze background data and information; (2) Characterize chemical constituents relevant to hydrofracking; (3) Conduct case studies and computational modeling; and (4) Identify and evaluate technological solutions for risk mitigation and decision support (Adapted from EPA’s Criteria for Selecting Case Studies).   The September 13th and 15th hearings were held in order for the EPA to collect citizens’ input on these approaches as well as specific suggestions for case study sites and research questions that must be asked pertaining to hydrofracking.

At the hearing held on September 13th, the turnout was scanty at best. The small theater, Broome County Forum Theater, was far less than half full and only a handful of anti-hydrofracking demonstrators were gathered outside the theater, though those in attendance made their presence known. By around 6:30 P.M. introductory remarks were over and the public comments began, with each speaker given exactly two minutes to speak directly to the EPA representatives present. Though speakers were asked to limit their comments to specific input on the study, the evening quickly became emotionally charged. Of those who did choose to express their opinion strongly on the topic of hydrofracking, the split between sides was nearly 50/50. Those in favor argued for the economic benefits of hydrofracking, as well as its ability to reduce dependence on foreign oil. Those in favor also argued that hydrofracking is an inherently safe process, with no proven health hazards. Those opposed, on the other hand, argued for caution. They expressed fear for their children, and grandchildren, and the environment.
Many were close to tears as they expressed their concerns and experiences to the EPA-such as several residents of Dimock, PA, otherwise known as “Ground Zero.” There, residents cannot drink their well water due to severe contamination from methane. The contamination did not begin until after drilling began in the town. Some suggestions for the EPA included producing a comprehensive list of all fracking chemicals used in the process and their potential health hazards, analyze the process with a cradle-to-grave strategy, track chemical fate and transport, note the amount of water being removed from streams and other bodies of water for use in hydrofracking and the resulting impact this has on the body of water, and enacting a national moratorium on hydrofracking while the study is conducted.

At this time, the study’s initial results are expected to be released towards the end of 2012. This leaves two more long years in which hydrofracking permits will continue to be issued, unless local and state governments see fit to change this. Here in the Syracuse area, the town of Marcellus decided unanimously on September 13th to enact a six month moratorium on hydrofracking, though this may be more legally difficult than local officials anticipate. Additionally, Onondaga County has banned hydrofracking on all county lands, with the Otisco Lake and Skaneateles Lake watersheds receiving extra attention and hopefully protection as part of this ban. In New York State, a one year moratorium has been proposed and has passed in the Senate, though it must still pass the Assembly in order to be enacted.

Want to get involved? Even if you couldn’t make it to Binghamton to the hearings, you can still submit any comments you have to the EPA via mail or email.  Send comments in the mail to Jill Dean, 1200 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Mailcode 4606M, Washington, DC 20460. E-mail comments to hydraulic.fracturing@epa.gov with “Hydraulic Fracturing Study-Comments” as the message’s subject line. You can also get more information on the proposed study at the EPA’s website, http://epa.gov/safewater/uic/wells_hydrofrac.html. Learn more, get involved, and help ensure that this study remains unbiased, comprehensive, and helpful to all those impacted directly or indirectly by hydrofracking.