UPDATE: On 21 December 2014, Governor Cuomo’s administration announced that it would ban hydraulic fracturing in New York State because of concerns over health risks. Read the New York Times story: Citing Health Risks, Cuomo Bans Fracking in New York State.
Dear Governor Cuomo,
Is it true that you have never visited fracking sites in Pennsylvania to inform yourself about the risks and benefits of opening New York State to this technology?
If so, I encourage you to touch base with New York State Senator Adriano Espaillat, who recently sponsored a fact-finding trip to Susquehanna County. The trip was guided by Vera Scroggins of Citizens for Clean Water (http://nepagasaction.org/) and accompanied by Bret Jennings, Council Member, Great Bend Borough.
If your schedule cannot allow a few hours for direct observation before making your decision, here are highlights of our trip. (You can find photos here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/williamaveryhudson/sets/72157631279075526/.)
Susquehanna County is about the size of Nassau County on Long Island, but with only about 45,000 people. Some people have hundreds of acres. Some have thousands. Some just have an acre or less. Most of the county is leased to gas companies. Not everybody gets polluted, and not everybody reports it.
We passed some homes with recent contamination that has been under investigation since last December by the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, which is similar to New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation.
We stopped at a compressor station that was previously a produce farm. The Barbour Farm sign still stands, except instead of fresh produce the sign advertises “Excavation Creek Work and More”. The station isn’t complete yet, but rusting has already set in. We saw the dehydrators and the brine tank. The site doesn’t have compressors yet. We saw a pipeline. These 100-foot-plus swatches cut through habitats, through woods, going through valleys, up the hills. They go through wetlands. They’re all over the county. We learned that if you look at it from above in an airplane, it looks like spiderwebs.
This is an agricultural, rural area with basically no zoning. Landowners and residents can come to a hearing if they want, but realistically they have little or no input on decisions made for them on a state or county level. That’s what we heard. The gas companies talk about jobs, but we learned most of the license plates at sites are from out of the area, out of the state.
Also, we learned that the gas is shipped out of Susquehanna county. It goes into New York, New Jersey, Massachusetts. That doesn’t seem fair.
The sites we visited were close to homes and schools, often within 300 feet. That seems too close, don’t you think? Imagine Mount Kisco’s homes and schools in such proximity to gas wells and pipelines.
We visited a family with bad water in the Franklin Forks area. The state tested their well, found superhigh, explosive levels of methane. Their water changed color, it started spritzing out of the faucet, with high levels of metals like barium and arsenic.
Here’s some of what we learned from this family:
“Our water was good before. Our water well was put in, I believe, in 2009. They’ve disconnected our well, so we no longer use our well. It was 82% free gas coming out of our well water….
“My granddaughter’s bedroom is right above the kitchen. From December and January, February, right up until we got the water buffalo, 2 to 3 days a week in the morning she would wake up and vomit….
“We could never resell this house….
“We have a neighbor up the road and her and some other citizens have started this Franklin Citizens for Truth group, and they had a private meeting at a church and invited everybody that has good water. We weren’t invited. People with water buffaloes weren’t invited. If you have a shallow well, then it doesn’t affect you. And if you have a spring, you’re even more blessed because it takes a while….
“We’ve had explosions. We had a compressor station in Springville explode (http://thetimes-tribune.com/news/explosion-rocks-natural-gas-compressor-station-1.1292502). There was an explosion at Windsor at a compressor station from lightning (http://www.wbng.com/news/local/Lightning-Causes-Compressor-Explosion-163497506.html). They were releasing gas, and lightning struck and, boom, there was a big mushroom cloud.”
It’s only fair to note that their neighbors are pro-fracking. But then, I live on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, and my co-op board is pro-fracking. Makes no difference if we own a million-dollar apartment or rent a ramshackle house, we’re all too easily lured by promises of short-term economic gain.
“I think people have these money blinders on, and they don’t see. If you’re pro-gas, you’ve got these dollar bills stuck to your sunglasses. They can’t see anything beyond that. You’ve got a handful of people that see the problems and you’ve got other people that only see the money. And that’s what the problem is.”
We went to Montrose. It’s a nice town, where people get water delivered to them from the gas companies, and where the water in the public lake is treated, chlorinated. We saw a sign, “Danger chlorine gas.” People swim there.
We saw lots of plastic containers next to houses. They’re called water buffaloes. All different sizes, depending on the size of the family. For example, a common one contains 1100 gallons, delivered every day by a private company that’s hired by the gas company. The gas companies typically cost them at $100 a day per family. The families have to pay in the winter for the electric to keep the water buffalo warm enough so it doesn’t freeze. Right now it’s unknown if the gas companies are using water deliveries as a business expense or if they are actually having the people who are affected and who have leases use their gas royalties for supplying water.
We learned that virtually all of the schools in the county are leased to gas companies, so there are gas wells next to the schools.
Elk Lake School District has wells on their property. They have had drilling for four years, and have earned royalties for four years. But we learned that they’ve had to cut back on teachers, and the district had to raise the property tax this year. We asked about the wealth communities supposedly get from gas drilling. We learned that according to a Penn State report issued in December, the lumber and stone industries have had a bigger effect financially on Susquehanna County than has oil and gas.
Our guide told us, “All the towns look the same. I don’t see any real change in our buildings. I still see empty stores. We still have the same amount of people on social services and assistance.”
We visited Dimock, the area that’s the most heavily drilled. A town of about 1500 people. 30 square miles. They have 150 wells so far.
We saw pipelines all over, marked by multicolored flags, like Buddhist prayer flags. Bizarre.
We saw a big gas site, with maybe five wells on it and a whole bunch of brine tanks. We learned that most of the landowners say yes to the leases. Over 90%. We saw a lot of blue “Dimock Proud” signs, saying the water is clean and the people are friendly.
The gas companies include the landowner’s name on their signs. We learned that means the landowners can be sued if there’s a problem.
“One thing the gas companies do not want to do is have you as an additional name on their policy.”
That’s important for landowners to know. Especially considering that Nationwide has become the first major insurance company to say it won’t cover damage related to fracking (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/07/13/nationwide-insurance-fracking_n_1669775.html). (That seems like a smart business decision – investors take note!)
One of the gas company signs said they had a permit for 3.57 million gallons of water per day peak consumption, for just one site. The Susquehanna River Basin basically approves every permit, every request. That’s a lot of fouled water, considering that a recent study has shown that the United States is depleting its groundwater reserves much faster than those resources can be renewed. The other countries in this situation are India, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, Iran and Mexico (http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/342896/title/Global_groundwater_use_outpaces_supply).
So, Governor Cuomo. Here are my takeaways from this fact-finding trip. First, I believe that fracking will harm rural New Yorkers and lower the quality of life for all of us, not least by potentially endangering New York State’s incredibly valuable groundwater reserves. Second, I think co-op boards like mine are not unlike North Americans who buy drugs from Mexico, driving up demand for a product that is devastating many lives.
I try to avoid hyperbole, this is just what I think.
Governor Cuomo, before you open even one acre of New York State to fracking, I encourage you to take a trip to Susquehanna County. At the very least, please talk to Senator Espaillat. He asked very good questions. Between you and me, I am glad he is representing me in Albany.
William Avery Hudson