As shale gas policy in New York nears completion, key agencies are sending very different signals about the state's ability to handle impacts from high volume hydraulic fracturing.
Leaders within the Mineral Resources Division of the DEC – the state’s permitting arm for mineral extraction -- continue to advocate shale gas development while downplaying its risks. A collection of county health officials, on the other hand, have issued a report warning of a lack of resources and knowledge to protect the public from dangers associated the kind of unconventional practices, including high volume hydraulic fracturing, necessary to produce gas from bedrock. They are calling for a comprehensive, independent report to assess and deal with health risks before the state begins issuing permits.
Meanwhile, DEC officials are facing mounting criticism for sharing drafts of policy to oversee drilling operations with industry lawyers before making them public. Critics claim the industry unfairly used inside information from the DEC to lobby for changes to regulations prior to their public release. The coalition of activists and government watchdog groups have scheduled a rally and press conference on the New York City Hall steps Tuesday at 12 p.m.
In reassuring the public that shale gas development is safe and beneficial, officials within the DEC’s Mineral Resources Division have publicly denied that hydraulic fracturing uses dangerous chemicals. “The drilling companies in our area do not use the toxic fluids mentioned at the Waxman committee hearings (on the contents of fracking fluid),” Jack Dahl, director of the DEC’s Bureau of Gas and Oil Regulation, told The River Reporter’s Tom Kane in 2008. “The companies we talked to said that they use only water and sand.” Mineral resources staff gave similar assessments at public meetings to educate people about Shale Gas development in 2008 and 2009. Their message then: Shale gas drilling and fracking – the controversial method to extract gas from rock by injecting the well bore with a pressurized chemical solution -- would look no different than conventional development. Due to a “well established regulatory program“ and a “rigorous permitting process” of the agency, impacts from shale gas development would be minimal or environmentally beneficial over the long haul, according to this agency line.
As DEC staff made these public reassurances in 2008 (documented in my book, Under the Surface), the Mineral Resources Division worked with industry representatives to craft a bill that would facilitate the permitting of unconventional shale drilling units, which at the time could not be easily adapted under permitting for the much smaller units designed for conventional wells. With the DEC’s endorsement, the highly technical bill passed easily in both the Senate and the Assembly, although permitting was halted at the last minute under Gov. David Paterson’s administration pending an environmental review.
While the exact contents of fracking recipes are proprietary, industry records and the state’s permitting policy document (the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement now in draft form) show fracking solutions contain hundreds of toxic chemicals including solvents, acids, and glycols, exposure to which can cause health problems ranging from cancer to brain damage.
Critics see denials by Bradley Field, director of the Mineral Resources Division, and his staff of any risks associated with shale gas development as signs of collusion and cronyism systemic to a DEC culture that fails to demand healthy barriers between regulators and an industry positioned to manipulate the system. Field was unavailable for comment this week. (Robert H. Boyle, founder of Riverkeeper and the Hudson River Foundation for Science and Environmental Research, a member of Sustainable Otsego, and a former writer for Sports Illustrated, writes about Division of Mineral Resources Director Brad Field in Metroland)
While DEC Mineral Resources staff report no problems, health officials report plenty of concerns and a lack of wherewithal to handle them. The New York State Association of County Health Officials issued a report earlier this year for Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s advisory panel on hydraulic fracturing that cites the potential for community health impacts ranging from disease to social ills in an environment transformed by shale gas drilling. The report noted that nearly 75 percent of local health departments cover territory over either the Marcellus or the Utica Shales. It cites several studies determining impacts from shale gas development in other areas, including the Battlement Mesa Health Impact Assessment, by the Colorado School of Public Health, which takes into account issues ranging from volatile organic compounds wafting from drilling operations posing risks of respiratory, skin and eye ailments, to potential impacts on women and children from repeated benzene exposures. The county health department assessment also references, among others, a report by Duke University’s Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions that cites “adverse effects” on communities related to reused drilling wastewater and “the availability and quality of locally grown foods, recreational sites, and jobs.” The New York State county health officials called for an “expert, independent, and evidence-based study of potential public health impacts, preventive approaches to mitigate human health risks, and estimated related costs prior to lifting the moratorium on permits.”
Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo, who sits on the governor’s advisory panel, said the state will take the report into account. (Lupardo was among those who voted for a bill that passed the Assembly for a full-scale health assessment before permitting is allowed in New York. A similar bill never made it to the floor in the Senate, controlled by leadership that supports shale gas development, including Deputy Majority Leader Tom Libous. )
“These impacts are going to be around for a long time.” Lupado said. “We need to make sure this is part of the conversation, and not give local health departments the cue that they are going to be left with a lot of unfunded mandates to handle a whole range of issues.”
Libous, who also sits on the governor’s panel, said through his spokesman Emmanuel Priest that the panel would review the report, but he did not elaborate on its significance.