Local leaders react to PA fracking spill

By Pauline Liu
The hydrofracking crisis in Pennsylvania last week was closely watched by the entire nation and here in Delaware County town supervisors have been carefully weighing in on the situation.

The incident, which led to the spill of thousands of gallons of hydraulic fracturing fluid into streams and farm fields in Bradford County, PA, has added new fuel to the already heated nationwide debate over the safety of gas drilling.

“I still stand behind it (hydrofracking), but I want to get more information,” said Middletown Supervisor Len Utter, who said he might consider it for his own farmland. “These things happen. Was it human error? Was it a failure of a piece of equipment?”

PA spill hits home
Hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” involves injecting chemically treated water under high pressure into bedrock through drilled wells. The process cracks the Marcellus Shale located deep underground and releases natural gas. It took two days for the natural gas company, Chesapeake Energy Corporation, to halt the spill in Bradford County.

The problem was blamed on an equipment failure in a wellhead connection. The company suspended all drilling in Pennsylvania while the cause of the spill is being investigated.
For Delaware County’s town supervisors, the spill in Pennsylvania holds special significance, because 15 of them went on a fact-finding mission to visit this very drilling operation back in January. The supervisors met with both staff and management from Chesapeake Energy and most of them came away impressed with their introduction to gas drilling.

“I came away from there believing that it was an everyday drilling rig and they were doing the best that they could,” said Supervisor Utter. “Was I capable of judging? Probably not, but from all of my experience with heavy machinery, it looked like they were trying their best.”

This Friday, several members of the Natural Gas Advisory Committee from neighboring Otsego County are scheduled to visit the gas well in Bradford County.

Supervisor Utter says if there’s an opportunity for him to return there, he would be interested in seeing the effects of the spill as well, especially since he’s had some experience with cleaning up hazardous spills.

“I believe in responsible drilling,” he said. “I’m a member of the county’s hazardous materials response team. I’m one of the fellows in the suits that deals with what we call in everyday language, ‘methol-ethol bad stuff,’” Utter said.

Heads against the wall
Likewise, Roxbury Super-visor Tom Hynes explained he wasn’t swayed by the emergency in Pennsylvania.

“You have malfunctions no matter what you do,” he said.

He continues to support fracking as a right of property owners, but he also believes the state would never allow natural gas companies to drill here, since the Watershed region supplies unfiltered drinking water to New York City.

“I don’t think the board (of supervisors) is going to move on anything until DEC (State Department of Environmental Conservation) makes a decision,” he said. “A lot of people are banging their heads against the wall about something that I don’t think is going to happen.”

DEC officials are planning release their findings on hydrofracking this summer, while the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency plans to release the results of its study next year. Supervisor Hynes was unable to make the trip to Pennsylvania with the other supervisors, but he intends to give the matter more study. “I’m going to make that trip myself,” he said. “I plan on doing it at some point before we have to make any final decisions. I don’t like to make a decision until you have all the facts.”

Lone dissenting vote
Delaware County’s 19 town supervisors have gone on the record about their opinions on hydrofracking. Meredith Supervisor Keitha Capouya was the only one to repeatedly cast a dissenting vote. She said she has no desire to revisit the gas drilling operation.

“I don’t know if we’re going to find out more by going down there again,” she said. “Wherever they are drilling, there are water problems. Wherever they are drilling, there are animals dying and people are getting ill. It’s very easy for the companies who have a lot of money to stonewall and say this is not happening at all.”

Only if it’s safe
While Andes Supervisor Martin Donnelly went to visit the gas well and voted in favor of fracking, he wanted to clarify his position. “That’s not the whole story,” he said. “I support hydrofracking as long as it can be proven safe. However, I did say let science dictate whether we should do it or not. If the scientists from Cornell University, DEC and the EPA come out with a study saying it isn’t safe, then we shouldn’t do it.”

Supervisor Donnelly feels that any governmental agency that stands in the way of gas drilling needs to document the risks. “Otherwise, whoever is preventing it (fracking) should bring their check books and pay those who own the land the going rate for the leases plus the royalties,” he said.

Criticism from a neighbor
The nearly unanimous support for fracking by members of Delaware County Board of Supervisors is drawing fire from one of their counterparts in neighboring Ulster County. Hardenburgh Supervisor Jerry Fairbairn is known for his outspoken position on gas drilling. " I am appalled by the rudimentary ‘feel good’ resolutions enacted by the Delaware County Board of Supervisors,” he said.

“I applaud the courage and resolve of Supervisor Keitha Capouya. I shiver to think or the harassment and chauvinism she must face from her fellow ‘red neck’ and ‘good ole boys’ that she serves with on that board."

Supervisor Fairbairn shares many of the same safety concerns over fracking as his peers in Delaware County, but he’s demanding that several conditions be met. “I would support hydrofracturing when energy corporations can prove that the entire process--from the signing of the lease to the capping of the wells--in 99 percent safe,” he said. He’s calling for chemical markers in the fracking fluids so that contaminated drinking water can be traced back to the gas companies. He would also like to see the gas companies extend bonds to municipalities to repair roads damaged by fracking related truck traffic.