State DEC Holds Public Hearing on Natural Gas Drilling in the Southern Tier

Posted November 18, 2011

Fracking Regulations: DEC's Latest Script Produces High Drama at Hearing
By Steve Reilly, The Star-Gazette

BINGHAMTON -- It was the perfect setting for the Southern Tier's longest-running drama.

In Binghamton's downtown Forum theater Thursday (November 17th), two hopelessly divided sides took center stage in a region at the crux of New York's natural gas drilling debate.

And, predictably, voices were raised and fingers were wiggled when the estimated 1,050 people began voicing their opinions on the state Department of Environmental Conservation's proposed regulations for hydraulic fracturing.

This was the second of four hearings DEC will hold this month to take public comments on its proposed regulations. After the close of the public comment period Dec. 12, the agency is expected to consider relevant feedback as it creates the final draft of the regulations before issuing permits to drill wells as soon as sometime next year.

During the first of two three-hour sessions Thursday, 63 people spoke, divided almost evenly between the two sides of the drilling discussion.

The comments -- limited to three minutes each -- drew lively reactions from a vocal crowd, which met the speakers with applause, boos, and the wiggling fingers and crossed arms popularized by the Occupy Wall Street protests.

Drilling advocates expressed frustration with DEC's three-and-a-half year moratorium on hydraulic fracturing. Meanwhile, opponents urged further study.

Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, D-Endwell, the leadoff speaker, expressed concerns about drilling in floodplains. Still, she was one of the few who straddled the fence.

"It's obvious that many people are frustrated with the pace of the review process," she said. "Some want to speed it up, some want to slow it down."

Both sides shared grievances with DEC's revised draft of the Generic Environmental Impact Statement, a 1,500-page document that lays out the agency's regulatory groundwork for high-volume, hydraulic fracturing -- a technique used to unleash gas trapped deep inside rock formations like the Marcellus Shale.

Sarah Eckel, policy director for Citizens Campaign for the Environment, called for a ban on treatment of hydrofracking wastewater in municipal sewage treatment plants.

"There's no plan for waste disposal for fracking waste in New York," she said. "We can track it and know where it's going, but we have no plan."

Others, like Tioga County resident Ron Dougherty, said onerous environmental restrictions in the SGEIS and a proposed prohibition of drilling on some state lands will push drilling companies and jobs out of the state.

"These barriers go against the New York State energy plan and will deprive New York of a source of long-term reliable energy and long-term tax growth," Dougherty said.

Advocates of drilling echoed a common refrain: the three-and-a-half year moratorium on hydrofracking in New York has gone on too long.

"These drilling opponents will never be satisfied," said Julie Scott, a landowner from the Town of Barker. "Their tactic is to delay, delay, delay until it is too late. Please don't let this happen."

Not surprisingly, perhaps, those concerned with the state's movement toward natural gas drilling said the delays are necessary because of perceived inadequacies in the regulatory framework.

Wes Gillingham, program director for Catskill Mountainkeeper, said the SGEIS presents an "erroneous analysis" of the environmental risks of hydraulic fracturing and includes other oversights, including failing to ban the storage of wastewater in open pits.

"This is outrageous," he said to standing applause. "We want that document thrown out."

While the crowd was mostly civil, at least four people were escorted out of the theater -- two of whom attempted to unfurl a large protest banner, which violated the facility's rules.

Speakers were urged to focus their statements on the SGEIS, but many comments veered toward appraisals of whether drilling should take place in New York.

"Waste disposal and earthquakes alone are two insurmountable problems," said Chenango County resident Kim Michaels. "Natural gas drilling in New York needs to be banned."

"This is a limited time offer," said John Cuomo, a Tioga County landowner and consultant. "Gas companies will not invest their resources where the regulatory environment is full of requirements and restrictions. Drilling opponents will never be satisfied."

Comments of elected officials, who were allowed to speak first, took up the initial half-hour of the early hearing.

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, D-Ithaca, drew cheers for urging the DEC to withdraw the document and referring to the portion of the document dealing with socioeconomic impacts as a "cut-and-paste job from industry press releases."

A common pro-drilling argument -- that gas drilling could be a source of much-needed job growth in the Southern Tier -- came from Broome County Legislator Steve Herz.

"I submit that with the good and reasonable regulations that DEC has put together, and the leases the landowners have formulated, the natural gas industry will provide the funding to create what we need," Herz said.

The public hearing was the second of four that will be held by DEC this month, and the only one in the Southern Tier, a region has drawn strong interest from natural gas companies for its position atop an energy-rich swath of the Marcellus Shale.

The crowd remained equally boisterous in the second three-hour portion of the meeting, but some of the reaction took a different twist.

"Our natural resources that we have here with natural gas have brought our country closer than ever to achieving energy independence," said Scott Kurkoski, attorney for the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, whose comments elicited a strong reaction from both sides. "It's time to move forward. Three-and-a-half years is enough."

Fingers were wiggled at the comments of Brendan Woodruff, hydrofracking campaign organizer for the New York Public Interest Research Group.

"The revised SGEIS does not include an adequate assessment of cumulative impacts, including public heath impacts and proper disposal of the toxic and possibly radioactive wastewater," Woodruff said. "You have opted to fast-track the process instead of ... undertaking a full environmental review."

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