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Gas Drilling Plan Raises Water Contamination Fears in New York City

Environmentalists claim the drilling could contaminate New York's unfiltered drinking water sources with dangerous chemicals and radioactivity

Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer speaking at an anti-gas-drilling rally in New York
Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer speaking at an anti-gas-drilling rally in New York

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New York City leaders and environmentalists from around the state are fighting a plan to permit a new method of drilling for natural gas in the city's upstate watershed. They say the process, called horizontal hydraulic fracturing or hydro fracking, would contaminate New York's unfiltered drinking water sources with dangerous chemicals and radioactivity.

Drilling supporters reply that drilling can be done safely and that depressed rural areas need the money that gas drilling brings – and that the U.S.  needs the energy. The debate is a flashpoint in a modern gas rush sweeping New York and Pennsylvania that could transform formerly rural areas.

"We must kill this drill. Kill the drill!” Manhattan borough president Scott Stringer told supporters at a rally against New York State’s draft plan to permit horizontal hydro fracking of gas wells. The method blasts millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth, first vertically, and then horizontally,to crack open an ancient gas-containing rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. 

Most of southern New York and all of neighboring Pennsylvania lies above Marcellus rock, including the pristine Catskill Mountains, which supply New York City’s nine million residents with gravity-fed drinking water so pure that it isn’t even filtered.  Further south, the Delaware River Basin is the source of drinking water for millions more in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.

Drilling opponents, who ranged from politicians to upstate environmentalists and landowners, vastly outnumbered supporters like Delaware River outfitter David Jones. Jones noted that gas burns more cleanly than other fossil fuels. "This is a good clean resource. It must be developed,” he said. “Let’s keep the dollars here in the U.S., reduce our dependence on foreign oil, keep our soils and water clean, and provide needed tax revenue and jobs.”

“We understand the environmental concerns, but that being said, we know without a doubt we can drill safely in any watershed,” said another defender, Scott Rotruck, vice-president of the Texas-based Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the largest company poised to expand gas drilling in New York State.

Nevertheless, Rotruck confirmed that following the public outcry, Chesapeake has decided not to seek to drill within New York City watershed. Other gas companies have made no such promise.  And Cathy Kenney of the New York State Petroleum Council, which represents the oil and gas industry, says that no ban within the watershed is needed. She disputes claims by some landowners in other states that their water wells were contaminated by toxic chemicals and migrating natural gas that caused explosions and tap water that can be ignited with a match. 

"It could be coincidental. As of now, all of these state authorities are investigating this, as they should,” Kenney said in an interview. “But up till now there is no causal link between the hydro fracking that's going on and some of these claims."

A gas well rig in the Pennsylvania countryside
A gas well rig in the Pennsylvania countryside

However, Pennsylvania recently fined the Cabot Oil and Gas Corporation for drilling that contaminated the drinking water of at least 13 families, and for illegal discharges of toxic waste. Studies of gas drilling in western states have found similar problems, as well as air pollution with benzene, toluene, hexane and other carcinogens.

In New York State, where the bedrock is highly radioactive, scientists say hydro fracking will also return to the surface dangerously radioactive wastewater. Opponents like physician Vincent Pedre say a complete ban is necessary to protect human health.

"This stuff is toxic in our water supply,” he said. “It's toxic in the water supply for upstate New York. It should be banned throughout the entire state."

Alex Matthiessen is president of Riverkeeper, a private organization that works to protect fresh water sources. He notes that hydro fracking uses enormous quantities of fresh water – two to ten million gallons each time a gas-well is fracked – and says that local aquifers and lakes could be depleted.

"It seems unsustainable to think that we've got enough water to lubricate this process in a way that's not going to cause serious water deprivation for some of those communities,” he said. But he said Riverkeeper’s primary concern is contaminated wastewater created by hydro fracking: “How do you dispose of it, who oversees it, who oversees these contractors who are going to be trying to save a buck? This process will require more enforcement than any we’ve ever seen in New York State,” he said.

New York State currently has only 17 gas-well inspectors to monitor gas drilling, however. If state officials go ahead with hydro fracking permits next year, more than 40,000 new wells could be drilled in southern New York alone in the next few years.

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