State’s NYC watershed announcement not all it's cracked up to be

Following many months of intense pressure by environmental groups, elected officials and individual NYC residents, the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation announced today that it was effectively removing the NYC and Syracuse drinking watersheds from controversial natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.

Some have been touting this as a victory for New York’s drinking water.  But we don’t see it that way.  Not only do we fear this move greases the skids for drilling in the remainder of the state without adequate examination of the impacts or measures to protect all New Yorkers’ drinking water supplies, but we also are concerned it risks giving New York City residents a false sense of security.

Let’s be clear about what today’s announcement really means.  While the state is acknowledging the special concerns associated with these unique resources because of their special status as unfiltered drinking water supplies for major metropolitan areas, this announcement does little to nothing to actually protect the drinking water supplies for New York City or Syracuse.

Stated another way, the announcement tells us the watersheds for more than 9 million New Yorkers are still vulnerable to drilling with toxic chemicals. And the experience in every other oil and gas drilling state tells us that companies could well find it in their economic interest to go through a “site-specific environmental review” process for well applications in these two watersheds – the so-called special new protections announced today by DEC.

Furthermore, the state has left wide open the possibility that it could revisit drilling in the watersheds at any time, and you can be sure if the shale shows itself to be productive in NYS, the pressure will be on it to do just that.  This is especially true looking down the road a few years when gas prices are higher and drills are in the ground elsewhere in the state.

Perhaps even more troubling, it’s an ominous sign for the water supply in the rest of the state – which could be subject to drilling under a rushed and fatally flawed environmental review that we’ve said for months needs to be redone.  Removing the NYC watershed from the current review process, in particular, provides opportunities for the agency to speed ahead and begin permitting in other parts of the state.  It removes the onus of responding to the devastating comments on impacts to the watershed prepared by the city’s Department of Environmental Protection, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, NRDC and others with respect to the draft environmental study, and it may lull the city’s residents and elected officials into a false sense of security.

The bottom line is this: we don’t need any more review to tell us what we already know. The economic and health costs of an accident in the New York City or Syracuse water supplies – which is a very real risk – are just too high and too big. The only responsible decision from the state is to issue a full ban on gas drilling in the New York City and Syracuse drinking water supplies, and to restart the environmental review for the rest of the state. Anything else simply doesn’t protect the health of New Yorkers.

So let’s hold off on popping the champagne.  And let’s keep up the calls on the Governor and DEC to enact a permanent, legally binding ban on drilling in the ecologically vulnerable drinking watersheds that serve millions of New Yorkers, and to pull back the draft environmental study for the entire state and do it right.  Drinking water supplies across the state are at risk.  This is our last opportunity to ensure that NY does not suffer the fate of so many other states that have rushed ahead to drill following the siren song of the mighty dollar.