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Gas Rush: New York’s Heated Hydrofracking Debate


Craig Sautner, a resident of Dimock, P.A., holds a jug of his well water outside of The Forum in Binghamton, NY, on Monday, Sept. 13, 2010 during the final public meeting on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s hydraulic fracturing study. Sautner lives 976-feet from a Cabot Oil natural gas drill. He was not allowed to take the receptacle into the meeting. (AP Photo/Press & Sun-Bulletin, Rebecca Catlett)

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Aside from potential profits, hydrofracking has been able to grow rapidly mostly because there are almost no federal laws or regulations governing the industry. That’s by design. The infamous “Halliburton Loophole” of the US Energy Policy Act of 2005 as opponents brand it—referring to energy services giant Halliburton Co., which pioneered hydraulic fracturing in the 1940s, and the role of its former CEO and former Vice President Dick Cheney in its crafting—exempts hydrofracking operations from being held to the federal Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act standards, among other regulatory legislation. It also effectively exempts these companies from having to disclose the ingredients in their frack water.

The DEC, in its latest report, however, attempted to find out.

“The Department has collected compositional information on many of the additives proposed for use in fracturing shale formations in New York directly from chemical suppliers and service companies,” it reads. “Altogether, some compositional information is on file with the Department for 235 products, with complete product composition disclosures and MSDSs [Material Safety Data Sheets] on file for 167 of those products. Within these products are 322 unique chemicals whose CAS [Chemical Abstract Service] Numbers have been disclosed to the Department and at least 21 additional compounds whose CAS Numbers have not been disclosed due to the fact that many are mixtures.

“Any product whose name does not appear within Table 5.4 or Table 5.5 was not evaluated in this SGEIS either because no chemical information was submitted to the Department or because the product has not been proposed for use in high-volume hydraulic fracturing operations in New York to date.”

Among the chemicals used, according to the report’s list, are benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylenes—known as BTEX and all carcinogenic volatile organic compounds.

Yet even its 322-chemical cookbook is incomplete, admits the report.

Two of the largest hydraulic fracturing companies, Halliburton and BJ Services, also admitted to using toxic diesel fuel in their fracking solutions, a violation of a 2003 agreement the companies had with the EPA, according to multiple published reports—one chemical that is regulated by the federal Safe Drinking Water Act.

Halliburton, which had revenues of $18 billion in 2010, began publicly disclosing the identity of some of the chemicals in its fracturing solutions last year—after being subpoenaed by the EPA, according to the Associated Press. The company, through a website, lists many of the chemical constituents of the additives comprising three of its most common solutions used across five states: North Dakota, Colorado, Pennsylvania, West Virginia and North and South Texas. It does not, however, say how much of each chemical is used or exactly where, only that the chemicals make up around 2 percent of the fluid.

When millions of gallons are used for each operation, that 2 percent becomes a very large number.

To put it in context: A Congressional investigation by House Democrats released this April discovered that 14 of the nation’s most active hydraulic fracturing companies used 866 million gallons of hydraulic fracturing products and that more than 650 of them containing chemicals “that are known or possible human carcinogens, regulated under the Safe Drinking Water Act, or are listed as hazardous air pollutants” an April 16, 2011, article in The New York Times quotes it as stating. Hundreds of millions of gallons of carcinogenic or hazardous chemicals were injected into wells across more than 13 states from 2005 and 2009.

And although on paper, spills and other no-nos shouldn’t happen, they do.

Pennsylvania is no stranger to fracking disasters, most notably the town of Dimock, which was featured in the 2010 documentary Gasland, where resident Norma Fiorentino’s water well blew up on New Year’s Day 2009. More than a dozen families in the area claim to have had their drinking water ruined by fracking. Some could actually light their tap water on fire.

In September 2009, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) officials charged Cabot Oil and Gas with five violations after nearly 8,000 gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluids spilled near Dimock, according to a Sept. 23, 2009, article on investigative nonprofit Pro Publica’s website. According to Halliburton’s “Fluids Disclosure” site, the fluid was a lubricating gel that poses a substantial threat to human health and a “potential carcinogen,” ProPublica cited the disclosure as stating.

The bottom line, contends environmental advocates and critics, is that the DEC’s latest plan still doesn’t go far enough.

“We would like to see much more than 15 percent of New York’s valuable water, air and land resources protected,” stresses Katherine Hudson, New York City watershed program director of Riverkeeper, an environmental nonprofit organization focused on protecting the Hudson River and the city’s watershed.

Though the group’s website describes the draft SGEIS a “substantial improvement over the seriously flawed” draft released in 2009 by Paterson, “there are still some serious gaps.” The group is concerned that the DEC will begin to process fracking permit applications before “regulations are in place” and proper oversight and monitoring controls are established. And, like other environmental groups, it doesn’t appreciate that the DEC has said it will only provide 60 days for a formal public comment period after it releases the completed revised review supposedly next month.

Riverkeeper spokeswoman Tina Posterli calls the period “ridiculous,” complaining that it’s “not nearly enough time to digest a 1,000-page document!” Riverkeeper would prefer 180 days. But DEC’s DeSantis said that two months is sufficient, considering that environmental groups are already starting to weigh in on this preliminary draft.

“They’re pretty much saying that a state-wide ban is not likely to happen,” she charges.

The report, argue critics, also raises more questions than answers.

“No. 1, what we do with the waste water?” CCE’s Esposito asks the Press. “It doesn’t answer how we deal with the air quality.”

Studies of fracking operations in Wyoming have shown that the air pollution at those sites can be worse than Los Angeles on a smoggy day, she explains, noting that prevailing winds in New York would carry polluted air from fracking in the rest of the state over New York City and Long Island, lowering the region’s already challenged air standards.

Another huge concern she and other environmentalists have with the preliminary draft, Esposito adds, is that “it doesn’t answer how the DEC will effectively manage and regulate this program when they are so short-staffed they can’t manage and regulate existing programs.”

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