By Bill McCabe — As published in Hudson Valley News

Bill McCabeDuring the six years that I served in the Dutchess County Legislature, I consistently supported efforts to require the testing of private wells at the time of transfer of property. Such a county law would give some degree of consumer protection to homeowners with private wells similar to those served by public or community water supplies. For me, the quality of our drinking water is a basic issue of public health. The County Legislature did, in fact, pass a well testing law but could not muster enough votes to over-ride a veto by County Executive Steinhaus.

Numerous communities in Dutchess (including sections of Hyde Park, East Fishkill, Clinton, LaGrange, Beekman, and Wappinger) have experienced pollution of private wells by carcinogenic chemicals, and the potential remains for other incidents. If we know a well is polluted, we can mitigate the problem and preserve public health. Knowledge and experience urge us to take measures to avoid disasters.

Now a new but related issue arises which also demands our use of knowledge and experience, namely the technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” which is the use of high pressure to drill wells a mile deep in the ground to release natural gas from shale. Energy companies including Halliburton, of Cheney and Gulf Coast fame, have been exerting tremendous pressure to obtain permits to drill thousands of these wells in an area of southeastern New York State west of the Hudson known as the Marcellus Shale. Wells have been proposed from Sullivan County and the Southern Tier region, through the Catskills, and into central New York, including the New York City watershed that supplies drinking water to millions of New Yorkers.

Fracking requires the use of millions of gallons of water mixed with solutions of toxic chemicals each time a well is drilled. High pressure breaks up, or fractures, the underground shale to release the natural gas. The energy companies have resisted the release of a list of the chemicals used, claiming them as “proprietary information.” What is known is how the release of these chemicals in underground water supplies can be disastrous to public health and the economy of a region when there is an accident or malfunction, as has occurred in Pennsylvania, Colorado, and Texas already.

Supporters of fracking say it is necessary to develop alternatives to the deep water oil wells in the Gulf of Mexico and to contribute to energy independence from mid-East oil. But fracking, with its use of toxic chemicals and high pressure technology, is fraught with potential dangers to public health. In nearby Pennsylvania in the upper Delaware River basin, where thousands of wells have been drilled by fracking, billions of gallons of water have been taken from lakes and rivers (2 to 4 million gallons for each well) and, as shown in the award winning film “Gasland,” large open pits of used water and chemicals devastate the landscape and allow the foul mixture to evaporate into the air and seep back into the ground. The film also documents gas explosions and fires, including one example of a homeowner’s sink faucet where the tap water burst into flames.

There are very few safety inspectors in states where fracking is used, and strangely Congress has exempted the entire gas industry from having to comply with the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act. Across the country 270 fracking mishaps have been documented, including fires, explosions, wastewater spills, well contamination, and ecological damage. Currently there are bills in Congress (S 1215 and HR 2766) that would remove fracking from federal exemptions and call for the disclosure and monitoring of the chemicals used in the fracking process. Chuck Schumer is a sponsor in the Senate, and Maurice Hinchey is a sponsor in the House.

So, based on knowledge and experience, should we go from the BP/Haliburton disaster of the Gulf oil drilling to a riskier fracking technique on land to capture natural gas, threatening the quality of the drinking water for millions of New Yorkers? I, and many others (including the Sierra Club and 20 other regional organizations), say no and support a moratorium on granting fracking permits in New York State. Pumping millions of gallons of water mixed with toxic chemicals, the specifics of which are known only to corporations such as Halliburton, into the ground under high pressure seems not to be a viable alternative. Also, natural gas is a fossil fuel, causing air pollution and green house emissions.

For fifty years public officials and scientists have been calling for shifts to alternative CLEAN energy sources. The environmental, economic, and health costs of our dependence on pollution-causing fossil fuels are unsustainable, not to mention the billions of dollars spent and the tragedy of tens of thousands of lives lost in wars fought for control of oil sources. Now energy companies want to move from deep water oil drilling with no effective means of controlling leaks to the riskier fracturing of shale over our watersheds with even less assurance of any effective way of preventing disasters or dealing with their consequences. Fracking in an area like the Marcellus Shale is a short cut to disaster.

Instead of again exposing our children, our future, and our land to poisons, American industry in partnership with State and federal governments should use their ingenuity and resources to switch to clean and natural wind, solar, and hydro energy sources. We also have to be much more serious about improving conservation, re-cycling, and waste disposal programs.

Last year Congressman Hinchey was instrumental in passing legislation requiring the EPA to do a study examining the risks of fracking to drinking water supplies in New York State and across the nation. This scientific evaluation should be completed by next year. Meanwhile in the New York State Legislature, bills (A.10490A and S.7592A) have been introduced to establish a moratorium on fracking permits at least until the EPA study is completed.

A State moratorium is the first step to protect the drinking water supply for millions of New Yorkers. Let the experience of residents of other states be a fair warning for us to avoid fracking disasters. Instead of thinking up more and more risky techniques to drill for dirty fossil fuels, let American industry and government follow the example of other nations to develop cleaner, greener sources of energy, including passage of an effective federal Energy and Climate Control Act. Meanwhile, if you get the chance, view the movie “Gasland” to see what fracking looks like in PA (a 3 minute trailer can be seen at Gasland trailer 2010).