DEC's natural gas draft regs getting drilled by more critics

By Matthew J. Perry
The public comment period on the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) draft Supplemental General Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS) ended on the last day of 2009. But calls to reopen it, and even to scrap the dSGEIS and begin anew in 2010, are loud and getting louder.
Since New York City’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), citing “unacceptable risks” to the unfiltered New York City water supply, called for the prohibition of drilling in its watershed on December 23, political and environmental groups have continued to criticize the DEC’s work.
A press conference held Monday on the steps of NYC’s City Hall featured legislators from city, state and federal offices, as well as representatives from a coalition of environmental organizations. Those assembled exhorted Governor Paterson to abandon the dSGEIS and to undertake a much more thorough analysis of drilling and its potential effects.
Catskill Mountainkeeper reported findings from a collection of experts hired by the coalition, which also includes Riverkeeper, Earth Justice and the National Resources Defense Council.
The scientists “unequivocally stated that injecting fluids into New York State’s Marcellus Shale will create conditions that can make transport of contaminants from the shale to surface aquifers possible.” DEC and gas industry advocates have argued that such mishaps are extremely rare and containable.
Skepticism about the conclusions in this report is to be expected, since a group with an environmentally friendly agenda commissioned it. Another voice will be much harder to dismiss, since it comes from within the DEC itself.
On December 28, two stewards of Division 169 of PEF/Encon, a union that represents “nearly 2000 professional, scientific and technical staff working as NYSDEC,” sent a letter to the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources and called for a minimum one-month extension of the public comment period.
The letter concludes that “a moratorium on natural gas drilling of at least a year. . .is not unreasonable.”

Draft called short-sighted
The letter does not call for a unilateral ban on gas drilling. It acknowledges that the Marcellus Shale’s natural gas reserves represent a “valuable resource” for the state. But it describes the dSGEIS as an inadequate, short-sighted document that has not weighed the likely profits from gas drilling against the foreseeable hazards that industry will create in rural areas. Worse, it claims that the DEC lacks the resources to competently oversee aggressive shale development.
Fourteen individual points are made in the letter, and each suggests that the DEC, spurred on by bullish industry advocates, rushed to exploit new technology that has made the Marcellus formation a viable target. Many echo complaints that already have been made by watchdog groups.
In particular, PEF/Encon states that DEC lacks the staff and infrastructure to exercise oversight of extensive gas development. “State agencies and municipalities are already understaffed due to budgetary reasons and are unable to fully comply with their current responsibilities. Attempting to have them do more even more with less is not possible.”
The letter also declares that there has been insufficient planning for wastewater removal and treatment. Hydro-fracking requires enormous amounts of water for each well; despite assurances from various quarters that the state can easily meet withdrawal demands, PEF/Encon states that the dSGEIS contains no hydro-geological study and no means to prevent hydro-fracking in sensitive areas.
“The very people who work at the DEC and would have to implement the plan have pointedly said that this is a flawed document, that it won’t work and needs to be abandoned,” reads a public comment from Catskill Mountainkeeper.
While the fate of gas drilling will be decided at the state level, last month the Delaware County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution that endorsed the industry “on the condition that the [SGEIS] thoroughly addresses environmental concerns with sound science along with the regulatory safeguards to minimize the risk of pollution, local concerns regarding the protection of infrastructure and water supplies.”
Despite that conditional endorsement, some supervisors were satisfied that DEC had already done its due diligence. While several expressed ongoing concerns about wastewater treatment and the transportation of hazardous materials, the resolution was supported by 17 of 19 members of the board.
Last month a group of Delaware County citizens sent a letter to the board requesting an invitation to express their opposition to the pro-drilling stance. “The county’s endorsement of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, we feel, was premature as it was based on one-sided information,” the letter reads.
The board replied that since regulation of gas drilling is a state function, it would not hold any public hearings on the matter.