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Dan Hust | Democrat

A four-person panel led the discussion on the environmental and health impacts of gas drilling last Thursday.

Drilling forum offers science and advocacy

Part 1 of 2
By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — July 23, 2010 — Four panelists gave their views on gas drilling at last week’s county-sponsored forum on drilling’s environmental and health impacts.
And much of that message urged caution.
“We want to make sure the environment and safety are addressed by the regulatory authorities before drilling is allowed to proceed,” explained County Manager David Fanslau by way of introduction.
“The purpose is to open a dialogue as to how we citizens should best be prepared for the challenges ahead,” added Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon, the three-hour meeting’s host.
Cornell rock scientist shares observations
The forum began with a presentation by Anthony Ingraffea, a professor with Cornell University’s School of Civil and Environmental Engineering. He is recognized as a leading researcher in rock mechanics, especially fracturing.
He is currently the director of the Cornell Fracture Group, which has provided computer simulators to help the gas and oil industry more efficiently fracture wells. However, he stated he has no financial ties that would constitute a conflict of interest.
Ingraffea did not attack the industry, but he did counter what he feels is its frequent spin on various issues.
“The industry does not know everything it needs to know about massive hydraulic fracturing,” he told a crowd of about 200 inside Monticello High School’s auditorium. “... If we’re not careful, bad things happen.”
A major question on everyone’s minds that evening was whether fracking can impact groundwater and drinking water supplies.
“The laws of physics say it could happen,” Ingraffea related. “Will it happen? No one can guarantee that.”
Though companies could realize profits of $6-$10 million per well, he dismissed the idea that New York State could see the kind of closely-spaced wells prevalent out west.
“What we’re going to see in New York State is not what’s happening in Wyoming or Texas,” he explained.
Instead, he believes there’s no more than a 50 percent chance that in the next half-century the industry will access the estimated 72 trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas underneath the 17 NY counties within the Marcellus Shale – about 76,000 wells in all.
His slideshow illustrated that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing have enabled the industry to site less wells across the land than in the past, and those vertical and horizontal wells are designed to reach every pocket of gas in a given area.
“This is not your mother’s hydraulic fracturing,” he remarked. “... This is going from a Model T to a Maserati.”
Still, the industry is just ramping up, and Ingraffea said royalties to property owners may not begin to flow for years.
What may change soon, however, is the content of the fracking fluid, as companies are engaged in creating non-toxic mixtures of chemicals, water and sand to prop open the underground fissures containing the gas.
“One of these [companies],” Ingraffea predicted, “is the next Microsoft.”
Responding to audience questions, he does not see a quick switch to air or propane fracking, due to technical and safety limitations.
He acknowledged that drill cuttings contained in fracking fluid can contain high levels of radioactivity, lamenting that no one is currently studying that issue.
Radon, too, is released during the gas production phase, he explained. It’s an odorless, colorless, tasteless, naturally occurring gas that can harm health but has mostly affected workers near wells, he said.
As for drinking water wells, Ingraffea urged listeners to get the highest level of testing conducted prior to drilling beginning (such tests cost about $1,000, he said).
If wells are contaminated, he told the crowd that they can be cleaned up, depending on the type and extent of contamination.
Of great interest to the audience was Ingraffea’s statement that studies have linked minor earthquakes in Texas with drilling in the gas-rich Barnett Shale – specifically due to deep well injections of waste fluids.
Back in New York, he worries more about the state Department of Environmental Conservation not having enough staff to handle the enormous amount of drilling permits expected to be applied for once the state finishes rewriting its rules.
Health effects warrant further study
Dr. Adam Law was the next speaker, an endocrinologist hailing from Cayuga Medical Center in Ithaca.
He remains unconvinced that there is enough scientific info on health impacts to allow drilling to move forward and is an advocate of prohibiting drilling until health studies are complete.
For that to happen, more industry cooperation is needed, said Law, especially in releasing the contents of fracking fluids.
“How can we look for toxicological information if we don’t know what’s being put in the ground?” he pointed out.
Utilizing examples through a slideshow, Law built a case that the human body is an extremely sensitive system that can suffer from even tiny amounts of chemicals diluted in thousands of gallons of water.
“The [fracking] brine is not really water,” he remarked, noting the presence of chlorides, heavy metals and toxins.
He also mentioned air pollution from increased truck traffic and diesel machine operation.
“Our whole region is going to be turned into an industrial zone,” he warned.
His advocacy for tighter regulations and further study of the gas industry is based on the “Precautionary Principle”: don’t undertake an activity where there is reasonable suspicion that it can harm the public health and the environment until it is scientifically demonstrated that such harm can be avoided.
“I have great concerns about this,” he acknowledged of drilling.
So much so that he got the members of the Tompkins County Medical Society in his hometown to advocate for a moratorium, followed by a petition signed by 70 upstate physicians.
In Tuesday’s paper: The Natural Resources Defense Council and Chesapeake Energy Corp give their views.
For a complete video of the forum and another that preceded it, log on to the county’s website at
Officials are planning one more free forum – on drilling’s economic and community impacts – on Thursday, August 19 at 5:45 p.m., again at the Monticello High School.

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