As communities across New York consider whether they will allow hydraulic fracturing, a group of more than 50 Binghamton University faculty members banded together to encourage the Town of Vestal board to pass a moratorium on hydrofracking until persisting questions of safety are answered.
“All of us share the view that drilling should not be permitted until this largely untested process is proven safe,” the letter signed by the professors said. “Until a comprehensive health impact study is undertaken and its results disseminated, the hydrofracking process cannot reasonably be called ‘safe.’”
Al Tricomi, distinguished teaching professor emeritus, wrote the letter and presented it at a town board meeting on Sept. 12. Several other faculty members spoke afterwards in favor of the letter.
“I feel an obligation to protect a place that has been a good place to raise children,” Tricomi said.
The letter gained support from professors in many departments within the University, according to Tricomi.
“I was impressed — and, I think, so was the audience — at the level of expertise we have here at the University,” he said.
Libby Tucker, an English professor and longtime Vestal resident, was among those who signed the letter.
“Native American wisdom tells us that before making major decisions, people should look back seven generations into the past and look forward seven generations into the future,” Tucker said in a press release. “Considering the future is especially important, since decisions that we make now will affect our children and their children and grandchildren.”
Ruth Van Dyke, associate professor of anthropology and resident of Vestal, said that allowing hydrofracking in Vestal could affect the future of the University.
“Fracking Broome County will make it difficult for BU to attract quality faculty and students,” Van Dyke said in a press release. “No one wants to voluntarily move to an industrial area with declining property values and air and water pollution.”
Larry Roberts, a professor emeritus who signed the letter, said fracking is too new to be proven safe.
“There really isn’t any good evidence that this stuff — this kind of drilling — is safe at all,” Roberts said.
Roberts said the process of fracking, including the disposal of wastewater, includes several steps that could be dangerous, but that the secrecy of gas companies make it difficult to uncover exactly what threats they would pose.
“It’s hard to get at the evidence you would need to find out whether it’s safe or not,” he said.
Although he supports a moratorium of fracking in Vestal, Roberts said he is not opposed to natural gas drilling all together.
“It isn’t as though I’m against drilling no matter what,” he said. “I’m against doing drilling of this particular type when we don’t really have good access to how bad the results are.”
Tricomi said that he and Sue Rapp, both members of Vestal Residents for Safe Energy (VeRSE), reached out to professors for support several weeks ago.
Rapp is a BU graduate who moved back to Vestal in 1983. She began anti-fracking work with a group called “Friends of Vestal” in the fall of 2010, when the EPA first held hearings about hydrofracking in Binghamton.
“When you first start hearing about it, you can’t really believe it’s possible,” Rapp said about hydrofracking.
Rapp went on to cofound VeRSE in September of 2011. VeRSE is concerned with the treatment of the land by drilling companies.
“They’re turning us into a third world country, exploiting the resources and leaving the devastation behind,” Rapp said.
To date, the group has gathered nearly 2,500 signatures for a petition against hydrofracking.
Rapp said she thought it would be powerful for the Vestal town board to see what professors had to say because professors would look at the issue in a scholarly and objective manner, and because BU is a “very important presence” in Vestal.
“Professors are trained to see dispassionately,” Rapp said.
Although drilling regulation is decided by the state, towns have the right to place a ban on hydrofracking.
The Town of Vestal board has five members, and in order to impose a fracking moratorium the members must have a simple majority vote. Rapp said that the letter itself probably did not win them that majority.
“I thought they were engaged and interested,” she said. “But I don’t think we changed anybody’s mind.”