Grassroots group focused on drilling
Editor’s Note: The following Q&A represents the third in a periodic series focusing on the organizations that have rallied to promote, oppose, learn about, negotiate with, and regulate the locally burgeoning natural gas industry.
Save for a brief introduction, the format for each article will be question-and-answer, allowing these groups to speak for themselves.
If you have a recommendation for a group we should interview, feel free to contact Editor Frank Rizzo or Senior Staff Writer Dan Hust at 845-887-5200 or editor@ sc-democrat.com.
By Dan Hust
CALLICOON CENTER With just a few bucks but a lot of passion, Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy has morphed from a tiny organization based in Callicoon Center to a 750-strong non-profit advocacy group called on by major media to comment on the Marcellus Shale natural gas play.
But while it’s gotten bigger, it’s still pure grassroots. No high-paid lobbyists. No attorneys on retainer. Not even an executive director.
“We’re all just members,” remarks Callicoon Center resident Bruce Ferguson when asked if he has a title.
A 20-year resident, Ferguson moved here full-time from New York City three years ago.
“This has exactly what I like,” he says. “There’s no pretension here. This has wonderful rural character.”
Fellow members Laury Sejen, Keith Wood and Kate Bowers wholeheartedly agree. That’s why they’re involved in Catskill Citizens to protect what for them is nothing short of paradise.
“I was scared, I was frightened, I was alarmed, and completely fearful of the pollution, contaminating the aquifer, the 24/7 trucks, the 24/7 noise, open waste pits with toxic water in them,” Sejen, a 10-year Jeffersonville resident, explains of her entrance into the group.
“There’s a possibility here to bring significant amounts of money into the region,” adds Wood, a Cochecton native since 2005, “but then the more you look at the gas drilling activity, it’s dangerous, it’s hazardous, it’s dirty, it’s polluting, and what do you do to mitigate it?”
“I found that trying to get accurate information was very confusing, and I certainly didn’t want to be talking about things I didn’t know about,” says one of the group’s founders, Kate Bowers, whose husband used to work on oil and gas rigs and had told her some alarming tales.
“Being that I grew up here, I felt it was important to talk to neighbors,” the Long Eddy resident relates. “I didn’t want this to become another issue that split the community. ... I love the people. This is my home.”
Here’s what they had to say about the group and their efforts:
Q: How did you decide to name the group Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy?
LS: First we wanted to recognize “Catskills” per se as a region which has some name recognition, frankly, and conjures up images of the landscape.
We were clearly going to be community and grassroots ... so I think that’s where “Citizens” came from.
And we also wanted to be almost exclusively focused on this natural gas drilling issue, so hence the focus on “Energy” as opposed to environment.
And the “Safe” was very deliberate as well, because we’re trying to be a little bit practical. We’re trying to avoid having our heads in the sand and act like there’s not going to be any gas drilling up here, though I think a lot of people in the group wish that were so. So it’s kind of like “if you must, then make it safe.”
BF: ... We are determined to make sure that our government at every level is responsible and that our neighbors are responsible. For our part, we’re perfectly willing to be responsible, and that means we’re not stamping our foot down and saying we don’t want any inconvenience in our life, we don’t want to be impacted in any way. We understand we need energy, we understand there is energy here it can be done in a responsible, safe way.
We’re not here to block leaseholders from signing, we’re not here to block energy companies from working here. We’re here to make sure everything is done in the best possible way, and we have a right to expect that.
Q: What are your concerns with the government?
BF: Our county government has been magnificent. [County Planning Commissioner] Bill Pammer, many of the town supervisors, many of the town boards are doing everything they can to educate themselves.
Unfortunately, under NYS law, they have no jurisdiction. It’s all been taken. Home rule does not exist when it comes to energy extraction. All they can control is roads and taxes. So that’s one huge problem. The people who are most anxious to see that this is done properly have absolutely no power.
On the other level, you get the state government, and you have the DEC [NYS Dept. of Environmental Conservation]. Most people don’t know, but the DEC, by law, is supposed to promote gas extraction. That is part of their mandate.
... I think we all feel they are doing an excellent job promoting gas extraction, but they’re falling down on the job when it comes to protecting our natural resources and public health.
The [governor’s] bill that just passed was a DEC-backed bill, a departmental bill, a bill they wanted. The bill did away with public hearings, expedited drilling in the region and had none of the safeguards that everybody is asking for: mandatory well testing, the use of steel containers instead of open waste pits (which are a recipe for disaster), proper bonding, and so on.
The DEC has not yet said that they will insist that the gas companies sit down with the towns where they intend to operate and make host benefit arrangements to reimburse the towns for the huge expenses they’re going to incur in terms of road damage, additional needs for medical services, fire services, law enforcement services.
... It’s the cost of doing business for the gas company, but the towns and the townspeople are supposed to pay for it.
LS: ... A lot of the conversations with the DEC have caused more concern rather than less.
I think they’re understaffed for what’s coming. They don’t have enough inspectors, and they didn’t seem to be getting ahead of the issue.
Q: Where else are you concerned?
KB: I have concerns about our volunteer responders. Are they ready for what may come? Will they be able to help people on site who have got chemical burns, or spills? Do they have the training, and the money for the training, the resources to handle all this?
I have spoken to a couple of firefighters. I guess there’s maybe one town in the area that does have training in chemical accidents, but I don’t know about the rest of them.
You know, they’re all volunteers. And we’re going to need more of them as this happens. We don’t know what’s going to happen, but we need to do everything to be prepared. And these are my neighbors who are getting called out at 3 o’clock in the morning and then going back home to their families. What are they going to be exposed to?
KW: We don’t know what the chemicals are. And so even if there’s a fire brigade that does know how to deal with them, if they don’t know what the chemicals are, they don’t know how to treat it.
I think there’ve been various reports of chemical spills and not only the worker on site who’s affected but by the nursing staff who are looking after him, as well. And if the chemicals aren’t disclosed, then it can have horrendous consequences.
LS: ... There’s a couple of other issues with the chemicals.
Well testing if you don’t know what the chemicals are they’re using, how do you know what to look for in your well water, either before or after the fact?
... They’ve said that some of the waste water will get trucked out. What happens if one of those trucks has an accident or it’s sloshing around and it spills on the road? Or if they’re not required to store the produced water in enclosed steel containers and we have one of our periodic floods up here and all of that gets washed out onto the ground and onto the roads?
You’ve got this risk of contamination of not just the groundwater from the drilling process itself but of surface water if there’s spills.
So this whole topic around the chemicals is something that I don’t think anybody should step away from. I think we need to push the DEC pretty strongly to honor what so far I think has been one verbal commitment to have the gas companies disclose the chemicals.
KW: ... The issue that I think is really coming to the fore now is, where is the water going to go?
... At some point, they’re going to truck the water out of there, this toxic water. Where’s it going to go?
The DEC says the water’s going to go to Pennsylvania, then people are talking to the plants in Pa., who are saying there’s no way they can take this water.
So where’s the water going to go? I think this is a question the DEC needs to answer before any drilling takes place.
LS: And where is the water coming from in the first place?
A single [gas] well conservatively [will need] 1 million gallons, you hear sometimes 2 million gallons, [during the drilling process]. Multiply that by the number of wells that you read about being contemplated and you’re talking about billions upon billions of gallons of water.
... Are there going to be issues in terms of the groundwater? Are they pulling it out of the Delaware River, are they pulling it out of people’s lakes and ponds? That’s not been clear to us where it’s coming from.
BF: ... The DEC tells us if you live within a one-mile radius of the gas well, have your water tested.
Why on earth should I pay to test my well because of their business operation? That is a business expense. They’re the ones profiting from the gas. Why are they going to foist their expenses off on to people, many of whom cannot afford it?
And these tests, unless they disclose the chemicals, are going to be meaningless anyway.
... And this is another area where the DEC should not be doing permitting until they’ve made an arrangement with the companies to pay for their own business expenses and not pass it on to the towns and the individuals.
KW: ... I think one of my frustrations and the group’s frustrations is the fact that we even have to ask the DEC to do these things, because it’s pretty much common sense that these protections are put into place even if their mandate is to help facilitate gas drilling.
These are pretty basic, common-sense issues that should be addressed.
Q: So why do you think these issues aren’t being addressed?
BF: Look at the money involved here. Look what we’re up against. We just live here.
You’re not even talking about NYS companies. You’re talking about enormous, out-of-state corporations with all the resources in the world.
And I think, frankly, our state government and our DEC are cowed, and they also see the need to get the gas.
I think they wish we’d all go away. But I think if we did, it would be a very different scene. I think we are making progress.
I think by the time they [gas companies] get here, I would be astounded if they did not agree that they are going to use enclosed containers for the toxic, contaminated fluids. I think we’re going to win that one.