Andes fracking foes seek town ban

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By Pauline Liu
When Town of Andes officials held a forum on hydrofracking last Friday, they anticipated that it might run late and draw a large, emotionally charged crowd. However, the event wound up exceeding even their wildest expectations.

The marathon meeting lasted a mind-boggling four-and-a-half hours. It was held in the auditorium of Andes Central School and drew a crowd of 156 people, which is sizable for the town with a population of about 1,300. 

“I had the place set up for a hundred people, but then I had to get the custodian to come and put down the bleachers, because I realized it wasn’t going to be enough,” said Andes Town Supervisor Marty Donnelly.

Passionate feelings
More than three hours of the meeting was dedicated to letting residents express their views. Though 47 people signed up to speak, some did not come forward. Everyone who did speak, did so with feeling. The forum was held at the request of Andes resident Larry Breakstone, who is an outspoken opponent of fracking.

“We have to ban fracking,” said Breakstone, as the audience burst into a loud applause. Breakstone, who is a retired New York City schoolteacher, asked town officials to hold the meeting, so residents could respond to the state’s draft regulations on fracking, during the 60-day statewide public comment period.

The state’s draft report, which was released last month, recommends opening most of the state to drilling, with the New York City Watershed as one of the exceptions. Andes is in the watershed. Residents have called for a plan of action, in case the New York State Department of Environmental Protection (DEC) should some day reverse its position and permit natural gas companies to drill in Andes.

Fears consequences
Michael Suchorsky, who has a second home in Andes, spoke about how roads could be destroyed by truck traffic, if the flow back water or fracking wastewater had to be transported from the area.
“I think it will destroy the Town of Andes,” he said. “There is no mechanism in place to absorb these costs. I’m concerned the town will have to raise our taxes.” 

Almost all who spoke were against fracking. One woman, identified as Andes resident Vera Little, who stood up to speak in favor of the financial benefits of gas drilling, was booed by members of the audience.

Several of the speakers identified themselves as new residents of Andes, who moved to the region to enjoy the beautiful countryside and hope to see it preserved for future generations. One of them was Leigh Melander, who started an online, anti-fracking petition about 10 days ago. So far, she has received 270 online signatures, about 50 of which are from Andes.

“We wanted to make sure we helped to spread the word about this forum, so I started a quick Facebook pages to get the news out,” said Melander. In response to a Facebook friend’s request for an online petition, she created one at change.org. It can found at http://www.change.org/petitions/save-andes-from-fracking. 

Residents not only came to speak, but also hear an expert explain the method of natural gas drilling known as horizontal drilling, hydrofracking or fracking. The keynote speaker, Bill Kappel, has been a hydrologist with the U.S. Geological Survey in Ithaca for 32 years. He explained to the audience that natural gas companies are lining up for permits to drill in New York State. “There are applications right now for 58 permits to drill wells in Chemung, Chenango, Tioga, Broome and western Delaware County,” said Kappel. “DEC has said it will not allow drilling they cannot monitor.” 

Among the highlights of his presentation was his discussion about fracking chemicals. It consists of about 98 or 99 percent water and sand. According to Kappel, it’s the remaining one to two percent of the fracking fluid that is dangerous.

“This is the witches’ brew,” he said. “It’s the cause for concern. It includes chemicals that are corrosion inhibitors, iron control, and there’s acid. The recipes are changing. If you go on the companies’ basic website, they give the basic stuff. The other things are proprietary. Company A doesn’t want Company B to know that they’re using. So it’s propriety in nature. Ninety five percent of it is the same stuff.”

Based on the drilling taking place in Pennsylvania, Kappel told the audience of what could happen to Andes pristine landscape. “What you’ll be looking at in the future is a spider web,” Kappel said. “You’re looking at a tremendous amount of land disturbance. You’ll see cuts across the hillside. You’ll see it across the people’s lawns. If you talk to people in Bradford County (PA), their roads are a mess.”

 Even though the well pipes are encased in cement, accidents happen. “Sometimes things do go wrong, where you have an incomplete seal,” Kappel explained. “ What they’re saying in New York is the casing has to be completely cemented.  The casings have to be cemented all the way, because of what happened in Dimock (PA). There are no guarantees, but it will be safer. Is it fool proof? Nothing is fool proof.” A series of spills in the Pennsylvania Town of Dimock in September of 2009 resulted in the clean up of  more than 8,000 gallons of toxic fracking fluids, which contaminated streams and led to fish kills. “In one out of every 300-400 wells, there is a problem where you do have surface water contamination,” Kappel added.

Kappel promised that his presentation would provide “just the facts.” He told the crowd that what happens next is up to them. “I’m not here to tell you if it’s safe or unsafe,” he said. “If you don’t like what I’m talking about, get a hold of your state legislators. If you don’t like the rules, get the rules changed.”

Supervisor Donnelly expressed satisfaction over the event. “The people have a right to know,” he said. “I think it was very informative and the guy (Kappel) was very thorough.”

The master of ceremonies for the forum, Margery Merzig of Keough Consulting, explained that the audience made quite an impression with her. “I was very impressed by how respectful, cordial and impassioned everyone was,” she said. Donnelly has given Merzig the task of writing a draft anti-fracking law for Andes. Merzig told the News the proposed legislation will be presented at the next town meeting, which is scheduled for Thursday, Sept.15 at 7:30 p.m.