Dan Hust | Democrat
Sullivan County Planning Commissioner Luiz Aragon speaks to a crowd numbering near 300 inside the Seelig Theater at Sullivan County Community College on Wednesday, part of a four-hour hearing on gas drilling.
Speakers urge DEC to be strict on gas drilling locally
By Dan Hust
LOCH SHELDRAKE Of the approximately 65 people who spoke at Wednesday’s four-hour hearing on new gas drilling rules, an overwhelming majority pressed the NYS Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to take a strict, exceedingly cautious stance with the coming drilling industry.
The hearing was held by the DEC at Sullivan County Community College in Loch Sheldrake, and a crowd of about 300 left standing room only inside the Seelig Theater.
The purpose was to solicit oral and written comments on the draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) that the DEC hopes to enact next year rules that will address new technologies and situations in gas drilling.
However, many of Wednesday’s speakers even those who favor drilling worried that those rules won’t go far enough.
“I’m not against drilling as long as it’s done right,” stated Highland Highway Superintendent Norm Sutherland.
But, as he and fellow highway superintendents from Lumberland and Tusten pointed out, local townships have “a very limited source of income” for the kinds of road repairs that would be necessitated by trucks loaded with the millions of gallons of water needed to fracture the Marcellus Shale.
The three superintendents urged the DEC to ensure notice be made to townships as soon as a company applies for a drilling permit.
Tusten Supervisor Ben Johnson, who is leading the Multi-Municipal Gas Drilling Task Force, added that the DEC should require drillers to meet with municipalities to discuss their intentions.
“We need 100 percent cooperation from the DEC and the gas companies,” agreed Fremont Supervisor Jim Greier. “... We all need to work together responsibly.”
No one garnered more applause from the audience that night than Luiz Aragon, the county’s new planning commissioner, who pushed the DEC to fully analyze all impacts of an industry that will have “an unprecedented and profound effect” on Sullivan County.
Aragon urged that no drilling be conducted in floodplains, that the contents of fracking fluids be posted on-site, that open-pit storage of those fluids be replaced by double-lined steel tank storage anchored against floods, and that cumulative impacts be assessed.
Sheila Shultz, chair of the Rockland Zoning Board of Appeals, agreed that coordination between municipalities is key, as her township may or may not see drilling, but with drilling planned in neighboring Fremont and Delaware County, Rockland will see increased truck traffic and possibly water withdrawals.
“This area is going to get slammed, I think,” she said, concerned that the DEC doesn’t have enough manpower or funding to stay on top of the required inspections at drilling sites.
“This study is enabling an industry to operate that is not compatible with our environment,” remarked Youngsville resident and environmental advocate Maria Grimaldi.
“Can we risk it?” she asked, to a resounding response of “No!” from the audience.
New York City’s man in charge of its Catskill reservoirs, Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) Deputy Director Paul Rush, agreed, fearing that drilling in the city’s vast West-of-Hudson watershed would contaminate drinking supplies and force the city to build an extremely expensive filtration system.
Rush’s plea actually got an answer that evening, though not from the DEC.
Representing one of the largest lease-holders in the area, Chesapeake Appalachia Vice President of Corporate Development Scott Rotruck promised that, at least for now, his company is not planning to drill in the New York City watershed.
“Although Chesapeake is convinced that it can safely drill and stimulate wells utilizing hydraulic fracturing anywhere including those areas that are part of the New York City water supply as a business decision, Chesapeake ... does not intend to drill horizontal Marcellus wells on its small amount of acreage that is part of the New York City watershed,” Rotruck said.
He added that drilling holds far more promise elsewhere in New York State, evidenced by the fact that Chesapeake has 50 drilling permit applications pending in the state, none of which include sites in the city’s watershed. (Only the Town of Neversink and tiny slivers of the towns of Liberty and Fallsburg are included in that watershed in Sullivan County.)
Nevertheless, he expressed opposition to any attempt to actually ban drilling in the watershed, arguing that the state would be unfairly taking away private property owners’ mineral rights and going against its own goals of resource extraction.
Heckled often by a largely hostile audience, Rotruck was also one of the few speakers in outright favor of gas drilling, joined in that sentiment by Noel van Swol of Long Eddy, who is a co-leader of the Sullivan-Delaware Property Owners Association (which is actively seeking gas leases on more than 70,000 acres in Sullivan and Delaware counties).
“Everyone should realize New York State is essentially bankrupt,” van Swol warned, noting his support for the DEC’s new rules but also the need to bring in economy-lifting industries like gas drilling.
Calling natural gas the area’s only hope for a better financial future, he termed much of the crowd “a small, vocal group of environmental radicals.”
Comments continued, many including suggestions of what to do better. Ed Jackson, chair of the Tusten Planning Board, proposed that tanker trucks carrying chemicals to and from drilling sites be double-walled.
Bruce Ferguson of Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy recommended a longer comment period and more opportunities for the public to access the 800-page draft SGEIS.
Carol Ryan, director of Sullivan County Public Health Nursing, urged the DEC to involve the NYS Department of Health in responding to spills and other health concerns, noting that her own department has been “cut to the bone.” She also strongly recommended an assessment be done of potential health impacts prior to the beginning of drilling.
As Barbara Arrindel of Damascus Citizens for Sustainability put it, “environmental cleanup is much more expensive than prevention.”
DEC spokesperson Wendy Rosenbach said her agency was listening and will review all comments including those made at three future hearings farther upstate to make possible changes or additions to the draft SGEIS. She could give no exact timeline of when the final SGEIS will be available for public review.