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Contributed | Environmental Working Group

A view from neighboring Delaware County, with the Pepacton Reservoir in the background and the East Branch of the Delaware River in the foreground. New York City has concerns over the potential for gas drilling in this, part of its watershed area.

Groups ask if there could be a ban on drilling – or should there be?

Part 1 of 2

By Dan Hust
SULLIVAN COUNTY — January 1, 2010 — Last week’s unveiling of a report on gas drilling by the New York City Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) struck local advocates and officials differently.
As specified in Tuesday’s Democrat, the report indicated deep concerns over drilling’s potential environmental impact to New York City’s upstate watershed, which includes the Town of Neversink and tiny portions of the towns of Fallsburg and Liberty.
As a result, the city is pushing for a ban on gas drilling in the entire West-of-Hudson watershed spanning much of the Catskills – even though the majority of property within that watershed is privately owned.
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has now closed its public comment period and is expected to finalize new drilling rules in mid-2010.
Meanwhile, we solicited comments from several locals about the report and the DEP’s stance. Here’s what they had to say:
• Noel van Swol is the co-founder of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association, which is seeking to lease to gas drillers upwards of 70,000 acres in Sullivan and Delaware counties.
“The lawyers call that a ‘taking’,” van Swol said, saying (like the DEC’s commissioner has) that a ban would deny private property owners their long-held right to exploit their legally-held mineral resources.
“The city wants that land – they have to pay for it,” he said.
Van Swol pointed out that NYC already owns half a million acres in the watershed and has had years to buy more. Instead, it’s struggled with watershed municipalities to come to terms with the private use of land that contributes to the city’s much-heralded unfiltered drinking water.
He added that his association has very little acreage in the watershed, and Chesapeake Appalachia’s recent promise not to drill in the watershed area may actually boost the value of the acreage his group wants to lease – as it sits over what is anticipated to be a rich location of Marcellus Shale gas.
• NYS Assemblywoman Aileen Gunther represents Sullivan County on the State Assembly and is also a county resident.
“I understand the rights of private landowners, but we also have to look for the future,” she said this week.
Citing environmental and industrial concerns, Gunther indicated she wouldn’t mind at least a temporary ban on gas drilling not just in the watershed but in her entire constituent area.
“If there’s going to be a ban, we have to protect all the people,” she said. “If it’s not safe for the [city’s] nine million, it’s not safe for [Sullivan County’s] 75,000.”
Based on the available data and science, “I can’t support drilling at this point,” she concluded.
“I’m concerned about the wells. I’m concerned about the environment. I’m concerned about the infrastructure in the 98th Assembly District,” Gunther explained, noting 10 letters she had opened just that moment from equally concerned White Lake residents.
“It’s not the time,” she added. “Until we can assure the health and safety of all the people ... I think we need to stand back and wait.”
• NYS Senator John Bonacic represents Sullivan County on the State Senate.
“The DEP should not attempt to take away private property rights in the Catskills without additional compensation for those rights,” he said.
“The 1997 watershed agreement was a highly negotiated document – created after years of settlement discussions. The agreed-upon regulations spelled out both regulations the DEP was allowed to impose on the watershed area, and also the benefits to watershed area residents.
“The DEP, by attempting now, through another agency (the DEC), to impose new limits on otherwise lawful conduct – gas exploration – solely in their watershed protection area, is attempting to broaden the watershed restrictions without additional compensation to the people of the Catskills.
“They are attempting to back-door more private property restrictions – which were supposed to be spelled out in the watershed agreement – by using another agency to do the DEP’s bidding.
“... The issue here is far greater than gas drilling – it is the ability of the DEP to have others regulate our land at the DEP’s request, without additional compensation for the limits on private property rights which the DEP is seeking to impose.”
• Congressman Maurice Hinchey, whose district includes Sullivan County, offered written comments to the DEC earlier in the year that pertain to DEP’s stance.
“I support calls for a prohibition on drilling in the New York City watershed. I believe all watersheds must be protected; however, the New York City watershed is a nationally unique resource. In addition to providing water to over 10 million people, it is also the nation’s largest unfiltered water system.
“For 30 years I have fought to maintain and strengthen this watershed’s natural filtration system, and I believe we must do all that we can to ensure it is sustained. Just one accident in the New York City watershed could have devastating consequences in terms of public health and public money.
“Several gas companies have already indicated they will not drill in the New York City watershed, including the largest leaseholder in the area, Chesapeake Energy. NYSDEC should follow those companies’ leads and simply not permit drilling projects within the New York City watershed.”
• Bruce Ferguson and Tom Wilinsky are leaders of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy, a group based in Callicoon Center that supports a local say in all matters related to gas drilling.
“The scientific study commissioned by the New York City DEP is the kind of thorough and responsible analysis of shale gas extraction that the NYSDEC failed to provide when it issued the draft SGEIS last September,” said Ferguson.
“Unlike the draft, the New York City study contains a detailed analysis of the cumulative impact of large-scale hydraulic fracturing operations, and correctly concludes that it presents an unacceptable risk to drinking water.
“Moreover, the NYCDEP study recognizes that unrecovered fracking fluids present a long-term threat to drinking water because ‘naturally occurring faults and fractures’ would permit toxic fracking fluids to migrate into the water table.
“As currently practiced, hydraulic fracturing relies on the use of toxic fracking fluid and also extracts huge quantities of poisonous, radioactive fluids from the shale formation. It is inappropriate in the New York City watershed, as well as everywhere else in New York State,” Ferguson concluded.
“The DEP’s objections make clear that the dSGEIS is not a regulatory structure, but a laundry list of unverified requirements to obtain a permit,” added Wilinsky. “The DEP justifiably calls upon the DEC to comply with the State Administrative Procedure Act and commence the formal rulemaking process.
“... The DEP's objections are only one set for objections from cities and towns around the state calling for more complete study and an actual regulatory structure. Binghamton, the largest city in New York sited over the Marcellus Shale, has also objected and called for a complete revision of the dSGEIS. Even the State Employees Union of DEC workers has called for withdrawal of the dSGEIS based on its many flaws, inconsistencies and omissions.
“If the DEP is worried that NYC’s water supply is threatened, imagine how worried private well owners should be,” Wilinsky concluded.
In Tuesday's paper, comments from Ramsay Adams and Wes Gillingham, the executive director and program director, respectively, of Catskill Mountainkeeper, a Youngsville-based environmental advocacy group.

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