By Dan Hust
WHITE LAKE In a rare Saturday town board meeting which attracted a capacity crowd of around 200, Bethel Supervisor Dan Sturm announced the township will explore prohibiting natural gas drilling within its borders.
While Sturm did not specifically advocate for banning drilling, his remarks and the audience’s comments afterwards strongly indicated that’s the direction in which Bethel is headed.
“How can the DEC [state Dept. of Environmental Conservation] and our elected representatives, including the governor of this state, think they can allow drilling here but not on state-owned lands or the NYC or City of Syracuse watersheds?” Sturm asked in his statement. “The state is clearly playing Russian Roulette with the residents of Bethel, and we cannot be anybody’s guinea pigs.
“I think the dangers of hydrofracking can be real and must be considered,” he continued. “As currently proposed, fracking can be detrimental to the town and our natural resources. The new DEC regulations do not recognize or mitigate all possible adverse environmental impacts. There appears to be a blatant disregard for adequate drinking water protections.”
So Sturm said the town will (1) send a letter to NYS Attorney General Eric Schneiderman asking for clarification on its authority over drilling; (2) consider an amendment to its zoning law “to protect the environment and health of our community from the serious negative externalities associated with the conduct of fossil fuel extraction, like gas drilling”; and (3) talk at a to-be-scheduled worksession about the amendment with the creator, Community Environmental Defense Council (CEDC).
The Ithaca-based CEDC has recently garnered attention for its drafting of precedent-setting laws that outright ban drilling in municipalities, including Lumberland, Highland and Tusten.
Whether such laws can hold up in court remains to be tested, but Sturm felt discussing such is pressing and necessary, especially since he has concerns about fracking’s health and environmental effects.
“I want proof or even a guarantee that it is safe, and that is not happening as currently proposed,” he said. “Again, this is too important an issue to politicize. I am the supervisor of this town who will do what is necessary to insure our water supply is now and forever protected for future generations. This board and I have been elected and charged with protecting the health and safety of our citizens.”
Sturm’s proposals seemed to garner unanimous support from fellow board members.
“My #1 priority is the health, safety and quality of life for all Town of Bethel people,” Councilwoman Vicky Vassmer-Simpson remarked. “... To me, water is our #1 commodity.”
“The letter Dan wrote hit the target: we’ve got to look at the situation as serious,” added Councilman Bob Blais. “... I grew up in the construction industry, so I like to see people working, but this is not safe.”
“This is not something this board has reacted to from an emotional place,” explained Councilwoman Denise Frangipane, referring to the research the board has conducted on drilling. “... We’re looking at this as a land-use issue. [We need to be] empowered to protect the health and safety of this community.”
Councilman Dick Crumley said he’d seen a government hearing where “they brought up some very, very scary topics.” When pressed later, Crumley said he has “an open mind on the subject,” though he continued to indicate he’s highly suspicious of the state’s ability to properly regulate the industry.
Most of the three dozen speakers shared the board’s concerns about drilling, with much praise and applause delivered over the course of the two-hour public comment period.
“If it isn’t safe, then it should be prohibited,” said Smallwood resident Robert Kraus.
“No amount of regulation ... can protect our water and communities from a reckless industry,” added Leah Maidenbaum of Bethel.
Less than half a dozen speakers urged the board to reconsider, arguing that drilling promises economic revitalization and numerous jobs.
“Please do not cut the legs out from under your residents,” Livingston Manor resident, Bethel property owner and leader of a local gas drilling landowners’ alliance Al Larson pleaded. “... They’re losing their homes.”
Lawsuits were threatened over lost property rights and potential income.
“Rather than go to that extreme, compromise,” urged Long Eddy resident Noel van Swol, who heads a property owners group seeking to lease their lands in area townships, including Bethel.
After the meeting, Sturm said the possibility of legal action would not change his plans, pointing out that the town hasn’t decided on anything yet.
“Let this be the first step in a public discussion and debate on this topic,” he explained.