Big Crowd Turns Out For State Hearings On Industrial Gas Drilling In New York

You'd have thought that Derek Jeter and Andy Pettitte were right there, distributing autographed World Series photos.

But no -- the big crowd outside of Stuyvesant High School Tuesday night was there for less glamorous but more weighty reasons. 

They came to a 5:00 pm rally, to listen to Manhattan Borough President Scott Stinger, New York City Council Environmental Chair Jim Gennaro and others warn of the risks of proposed industrial gas drilling on lands within the city's Catskill and Delaware water supply watersheds. 

And they came to testify at State Department of Environmental Conservation's only New York City hearing on an ill-advised gas drilling proposal that represents the #1 threat to the downstate drinking water supply -- and indeed to other public water supplies around the state.

Councilman Gennaro -- the City's Paul Revere of drinking water protection -- was the first public official to speak out, more than a year ago, against the state's plan to allow hundreds if not thousands of new gas drilling wells on upstate lands, including those near streams and rivers that feed New York City's Catskill and Delaware system reservoirs.

This year, Borough President Stringer picked up the bugle and has been assembling a growing band of elected officials and citizen allies to call upon Albany to reverse course.  It was Stringer and his staff who organized the successful rally on Tuesday and secured permission to host the event directly in front of the high school itself. 

The political reinforcements were on display -- both at the outdoor rally and at the public hearing, which began in Stuyvesant's beautiful auditorium at 6:30PM.

Among the elected officials (or their representatives) who spoke up on behalf protecting the downstate water supply - with most calling for an outright prohibition on gas drilling in the New York City watershed and many suggesting that additional protections were needed for upstate water supplies as well - were the following:

Borough President Scott Stinger

Councilmember Jim Gennaro

Congresssman Jerry Nadler  

Councilmember Jessica Lappin

Councilmember Dan Garodnick

Councilmember-elect Margaret Chin

Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney

State Senator Tom Duane

State Senator Liz Krueger

Assemblywoman Linda Rosenthal

State Senator Dan Squadron

Assemblyman Micah Kellner

Assemblyman Brian Kavanagh

Assemblywoman Deborah Glick

Assemblyman James Brennan

City Comptroller Bill Thompson

The crowd at the rally and the public hearing was both loud and overwhelmingly opposed to the State's gas drilling proposal.

The lead-off speaker at the hearing was New York City Deputy Mayor Ed Skyler.  His encouraging statement suggested that the Bloomberg Administration could soon be joining the call for a prohibition on gas drilling within city watershed boundaries.  (Before taking such action, however, the Administration is awaiting the results of a consultants' study - due back in December.)

The Deputy Mayor was interrupted by a man who made his way onto the stage and shouted his support for a "statewide ban" on gas drilling - a view that was shared by others in audience.

Stringer and Gennaro were up next.  Their strong statements warning of dangers to the city's water supply from the state gas drilling proposal received rousing cheers.

The environmental community was out in force as well.

Kate Sinding, NRDC's lead attorney on the New York gas drilling campaign, was one of several speakers who pooh-poohed the recently announced pledge by the President of Chesapeake Energy Corporation that the company would not press ahead with drilling now on city watershed lands.  In Kate's testimony, she said that the Chesapeake promise "does nothing to reduce the need for the state to impose a permanent, legally-binding ban that applies to all companies seeking to operate in the New York City watershed and similarly vulnerable areas." 

Representatives of Riverkeeper, Catskill Mountainkeeper, Earthjustice, the Sierra Club, NYPIRG, Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, NYH2O, Citizen's Campaign for the Environment, Theodore Gordon Flyfishers and other environmental groups also testified and presented a host of reasons for concern/alarm with the draft environmental impact statement prepared by the State DEC.

It was encouraging to see the large number of city (and upstate) residents who turned out to register their dismay with the state's proposal.  The Stuyvesant auditorium reportedly holds 850 people and when the hearing got underway, the vast majority of the seats were filled.

A sizeable number of speakers and attendees voiced their opinion that the state should implement an outright statewide ban on industrial gas drilling. 

The hearing stretched long into the night.  Well over 100 speakers took the mike (we'll report the exact figure in our next post.)  All but a handful opposed the state's gas drilling plan.

Like previous hearings held upstate by DEC, the vast majority of those who testified were making their voices heard in opposition to the Paterson Administration's current policy direction.  (See reports from the other hearings on the website of Catskill Mountainkeeper.)  

Many speakers and audience members requested that, in view of the more than 800 pages in the draft environmental statement and the complex and technical nature of the proposal, DEC should extend the public comment period from December 30, 2009 to February 28, 2010.  

(Each speaker who testified at the hearing was limited to 5 minutes.  A giant hour-glass was projected onto a screen on stage.  It kept track of time to the hundredth of a second. When five minutes were up, the screen turned red and the next speaker was called.)

The guy who had the toughest job of the night was Stu Gruskin, the State DEC Executive Deputy Commissioner, who served as the agency's official representative at the hearing.  Stu, a genuinely nice guy and dedicated public servant, listened dutifully to the testimony, while taking notes on his computer. 

But whether the State DEC and the Paterson Administration will respond to the overwhelming public sentiment and change its approach - at least without considerable additional pressure -- is still very much an open question.

Similar to the New York-Philadelphia World Series, it was a night filled with cheering, catcalls and controversy.   But unlike the recently concluded baseball contest, residents of both cities could lose if their watersheds are not protected from the multiple threats posed by industrial gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.