The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held a forum in Downtown Binghamton last night about the agency’s Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (DSGEIS), which concerns the environmental effects of hydraulic fracturing or “fracking,” a method of natural gas drilling.
Fracking releases natural gas from subsurface rock formations by drilling into the ground and pumping water and chemicals down to fracture the bedrock and release the gas.
Last night’s forum was the second of four that the DEC is conducting this fall to allow New Yorkers to voice their views about fracking, which has become an extremely contentious issue in the state and local area. Opponents have argued that fracking will negatively impact the environment and possibly endanger the health of millions by polluting drinking water. Those in favor of the drilling have argued that fracking is safe and will bring economic benefits in the form of land leases and jobs.
The Southern Tier sits on top of the Marcellus Shale, a formation of rock that stretches beneath several other states that contains one of the country’s largest deposits of natural gas.
The DSGEIS analyzes the potential environmental effects of fracking and sets guidelines that gas companies would have to follow in New York State if fracking is permitted to commence.
Karl Berger, the citizen participation specialist in the DEC’s division of public affairs and education, said that the DEC’s regulations will apply wherever fracking takes place, but that the DEC can not decide whether or not fracking will be allowed in New York.
“We do not have the power to ban the activity all together, Berger said. “[Gov. Paterson] did pass a ban in 2010 that they did not renew this year.”
Former Gov. David Paterson first ordered a moratorium on fracking in New York in December 2010 so that DEC could take more time to exam its consequences on the environment and public health.
Berger said that the purpose of the DEC’s public forums is to help develop the DSGEIS.
“We want to get comments from the public on our proposed documents in order to improve them,” Berger said. “The comments that we did not use, we will respond to as to why we didn’t.”
There were two separate sessions yesterday, from 1 to 4 p.m. and 6 to 9 p.m. at the Forum Theater at 236 Washington St. The latter session was extended to 10 p.m. at the request of those in attendance.
Attendees at the forum were allowed to sign up to speak for three minutes. The forum was presided over by Richard Sherman, administrative law judge, and Louis Alexander, assistant commissioner of the hearings and mediation for the DEC.
Sandra Steingraber, a biologist who studies chemical contamination of the environment and author of the book “Raising Elijah,” spoke during the forum about the effects of pollutants caused by natural gas drilling.
Steingraber said that as “a biologist, a cancer survivor and a mother,” she thought the DSGEIS guidelines were not safe.
“In the 1,537 pages of DSGEIS, the word ‘children’ does not appear,” Steingraber said.
Betty Eck, another speaker at the forum, said that fracking should not be allowed in New York.
“Something that is fundamentally wrong cannot be made right by regulating it,” Eck said. “Fracking endangers the welfare of children and other living things.”
Cameron Williams, a resident of Ulster County, said he was skeptical about the safety of fracking.
“If natural gas drilling is safe, then why did the [drilling] companies need exemptions from the [Environmental Protection Agency's] Clean Air, Clean Water, and Superfund Acts?” Williams said. “The DSGEIS does not give me the feeling that New York State is interested in doing it right.”
Other speakers at the forum took the opposite side of the issue.
John Cuomo, a member of the Tioga Coalition, a pro-fracking land owners group, said he thinks that fracking is necessary for the state.
“Natural gas is a transition fuel which must be harvested now,” Cuomo said.
Jonathan Strong, a lawyer who spoke at the forum, raised legal issues with the DSGEIS regarding workers’ rights for the gas drillers.
“It [the draft] is legally defective,” Strong said. “12 hours a day, seven days a week, for two weeks in a row … These accidents from fatigued workers are just waiting to happen.”
There was hostility between the pro-fracking and anti-fracking participants. Many of the speakers’ words were met with jeers and booing from the audience.
At several points during the forum, Sherman asked the audience to quiet down and to be respectful of the speakers.
Shortly after the evening program’s 6 p.m. start time, insults were exchanged between two men in the audience on opposite sides of the issue, and one of the men was escorted out of the theater by police officers.
Several BU students said they attended the forum to gain information about the current state of the fracking debate.
Robb Quiller, a senior double-majoring in environmental economics and economics, said he was against fracking but wanted to understand both positions.
“It’s good to know what’s going on around you,” Quiller said. “I came here and thought I would hear both sides of the argument.”
Jacob Robison, a junior majoring in environmental studies, said he thought being informed was important.
“If you’re going to protest it and then not show up to this meeting, what does that say,” Robison said. “It’s basically a civic responsibility.”
The DEC’s next forums will take place in Loch Sheldrake, N.Y. at Sullivan County Community College on Nov. 29 and in Manhattan at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center on Nov. 30.
The DEC has stated that the public’s comments will be used as the DEC plans to instate the DSGEIS next year.
“It’s likely that during 2012 we would look to try to finalize those documents,” Berger said.