First Impressions of New York's New Environmental Study of Fracking

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation today released its long-awaited Revised Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, detailing the Cuomo Administration’s controversial proposal for industrial gas drilling in the state’s portion of the Marcellus Shale, using the technique known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

As readers of my colleagues Frances Beinecke’s and Kate Sinding’s blogs already know, the fracking issue has generated great interest and concern in New York State.  And poorly regulated fracking activities in Pennsylvania and across the country have been linked to a host of serious environmental woes.

With such a backdrop, the draft study released today is the most important environmental impact statement prepared by New York State in recent years.  Recognizing the high stakes involved, NRDC will be scrutinizing the more than 1,500 page document with exceptional care, and we encourage concerned citizens across the state to do the same.  In addition, NRDC and our experts will be preparing detailed comments on the draft EIS.

As previously noted, NRDC recognizes that elements of the state’s new proposal are stronger than the Paterson Administration’s fatally flawed 2009 draft analysis. But we continue to believe that fracking should not move forward in New York unless and until it is demonstrated that New Yorkers' health and environment would be protected.

Our first impression of the new draft environmental study is that it has left a boatload of unresolved issues and unanswered questions in its wake.

Here are four quick examples:

  • Fracking in Floodplains – The recent and tragic flooding in the Catskills and other parts of upstate New York following Tropical Storm Irene is further proof, if any is needed, that floodplains are no place for industrial activities, including gas drilling.  While the state is correctly proposing to prohibit well-pad development in floodplains, it would apparently allow other fracking-related activities (infrastructure, holding ponds, etc) in and under such areas. 
  • Impacts on Local Communities from Rapid Industrialization – The state’s draft study does not provide an effective mechanism to insure that local communities will be protected from the overwhelming industrial onslaught that comes with fracking (from heavy drilling and excavating equipment, to traffic, air and water pollution, and the like) should drilling proceed in a particular area. 
  • Disposal of Hazardous Fracking Wastewaters – There are currently no wastewater treatment plants in New York State equipped to treat wastewaters from high-volume fracking operations.  And the draft study is unacceptably vague on what will become of the tens of millions of gallons of toxic wastewaters produced in NYS if fracking operations move forward here.
  • Continuing Threats to NYC and Syracuse Water Supply Infrastructure – While wisely proposing to place the unfiltered New York City and Syracuse watersheds off limits to fracking, the draft study provides very limited protection, if any, to the critical aqueducts and tunnels that carry water from our reservoirs.  From a public health and emergency preparedness standpoint, allowing risky drilling activities to occur near aging and vulnerable water supply infrastructure is an unreasonable risk.

Today’s release of the completed draft environmental study begins a 96 day public comment period, which will run until December 12th.  Originally, the Department had planned for a 60 day comment period.  But NRDC and our environmental colleagues, recognizing the complexity and importance of this proceeding, petitioned the agency to extend the time for public review.

In a troubling procedural development, the DEC revealed today that it will propose draft rules to govern the as-yet-to-be-determined fracking program even before the environmental review is complete. The proposed rules will apparently be released in October and the comment period is scheduled to conclude in December, at the same time as the comment period on the environmental study.  But this is putting the cart before the horse.  The core purpose of the EIS process is to inform the decision-making process before decisions are made.  This rapid schedule places an unreasonable time burden on the public and seems to favor expedited rulemaking over the careful and measured approach to gas drilling that the DEC had been promising.

According to today’s announcement, four public hearings will be held around the state, including one in New York City. 

Hold onto your hats, folks.  The forthcoming public review process is going to be a wild and bumpy ride.