New York Proposes Risking Chemicals in Our Drinking Water

Are you a New Yorker? Do you drink water? Like it free of dangerous chemicals? You may want to read this.

Last week, New York State came closer to breaking ground on a controversial gas drilling practice upstate in the drinking water sheds for 15 million people in New York and surrounding states - including the 9 million New Yorkers who rely on the New York City watershed for clean, unfiltered drinking water. They're telling everyone it's safe - but if the incidents of contaminated water, spills and dead livestock popping up on a weekly basis elsewhere in America aren't enough to convince you, allow me to explain.

Natural gas may be an important transition fuel as we move toward a clean energy economy. However, the particular drilling method in question is highly controversial.

The 809-page draft  Environmental Impact Statementfor natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale formation put out by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation represents the state's effort to evaluate the potential risks associated with using hydraulic fracturing (commonly referred to as hydrofracking) in the Marcellus. Hydrofracking is a highly controversial technique that pumps millions of gallons of water mixed with undisclosed chemicals and sand at extremely high pressure to break open tight rock formations and allow the natural gas they contain to flow out for collection.  

DEC - and the industry - contend it'll be different here, championing the fact that the document includes more stringent measures than what we have seen in most other states with hydrofracking. But the reality is the bar is set so abysmally low elsewhere that it's a cold comfort. In other words, it isn't hard for New York to claim a better proposed regulatory regime than exists elsewhere. Whether what New York has proposed is strong enough to fully protect health and the environment will require a much more searching analysis.

And now the state is proposing to allow this dangerous, controversial drilling method in areas that supply drinking water for millions of people. As a New Yorker who enjoys drinking safe tap water and an environmental lawyer tasked with protecting this resource for everyone, I find it absolutely unacceptable that the state is willing to put everyone who drinks this water - more than half of its entire population - at-risk of drinking dangerous chemicals. Especially while we're watching the consequences unfold around the country.

Safe drinking water is worth billions of dollars to the U.S. economy and when accidents happen it's tremendously expensive. The state needs to proceed carefully from the start, and not let hopes for a quick buck blind it to the greater underlying costs that could come with it - financially and to human health.

Let's be really clear. No matter how safe the industry claims hydrofracking to be, their claims are based on a history of ignorant bliss. If you don't look for problems, you won't find them.  If you don't look for the cause when problems do arise, you won't know what it is.  That's the reality of hydrofracking.  No one can plausibly say it's safe because no one has done an objective, scientifically sound analysis.  When we're talking about drinking water (and other precious resources), the burden must be on industry to demonstrate safety, and the precautionary principle must apply.  The question now is, does what's in this EIS properly rely on those fundamental precepts?

It will take us and our technical experts some time to comb through the EIS and provide a detailed assessment. But at first-blush, we're seeing some red flags:

  1. The state gives fracking a greenlight in our watersheds, and there are no limits in special ecological areas.  NRDC, environmental allies and a slew of elected officials have called for especially vulnerable and valuable areas (including the New York City watershed) to be placed off-limits, and, of course, for the most stringent safety precautions where drills are allowed to break ground.
  2. It underestimates the potential scale of the costs.  The law requires that cumulative impacts be evaluated - in other words, the state must assume gas companies will drill as much as they are allowed to. But on first read, it doesn't. One thing we can be certain of is that gas prices and other economic indicators will drive how quickly the Marcellus is developed.  A reasonable worst-case assumption is the appropriate means of letting the public know what the maximum, reasonably likely potential impacts will be.
  3. DEC practically shuts the door on the public.  DEC has only provided the public with 60 days to review and comment on this massive document.  Yet this is the last opportunity the public has to weigh-in on a major new industrial activity that has the potential to contaminate our water supplies, air and land if not properly managed. Equally troubling, the state is not providing for public hearings - just "informational sessions," at which the public will not be allowed to testify.

Not to mention that even with better regulations, we know how understaffed the DEC is right now - it simply does not have the resources to properly implement and enforce those requirements. At the end of the day - where will the resources come from to follow through on the proposed protections?

There are still many questions that remain unanswered. In the coming weeks, NRDC will be fighting to increase the public participation opportunities available to comment on this critical document so the people at risk have an opportunity to express their concerns.  We will also be working with our experts to thoroughly digest and evaluate its contents and to provide a comprehensive list of recommendations that we believe would be necessary to ensure that all public drinking water supplies and other natural resources are fully protected from the threats posed by gas drilling.

Stay tuned to this blog for further developments; we'll be posting information about how you can get involved in protecting the state's water and other natural resources in the days and weeks ahead.