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Ex-DEC Official Talks 'Myths' of Hydro-Fracking

Stu Gruskin highlights costs and benefits of natural gas drilling technique in New York.

The process of hydraulic fracturing in drilling underground for natural gas in the upstate Marcellus Shale has been met with great controversy in New York State, including from those in the Hudson Valley concerned over what it could mean to New York City's watershed.

Despite the concerns, the picture is nuanced, with the concern exaggerated in some areas, a former state official said at a May 1 gathering at the Chappaqua Library.

Stu Gruskin, former executive deputy commissioner for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, took aim at "myths" on the topic at a forum sponsored by the League of Women Voters of New Castle.

Gruskin, who is a West End resident, explained that fracking itself is not a new process and has been around for decades. What is now different is that fracking has been combined with horizontol drilling, itself an old process, and done without significant environtal problems.

Currently, New York State, unlike other states, is taking a cautious approach and studying the procedure before issuing permits, Gruskin explained. He also noted that a current "moratorium" executive order signed by then-Gov. David Paterson last year will not have bearing on whether the DEC will start its permitting process.

Gruskin painted a positive picture of his former agency, noting that a controversial provision that exempts drilling companies from disclosing its chemicals at the federal level will not matter in New York because disclosure would be required under state law. He also sought to dispel concerns over what drilling would mean in the New York City watershed, noting that a separate environmental review would be need for companies would want to do so near its water supply.

He suggested that the city's real concern could be if the water would no longer be pure enough to go without filtration, which could cost the city billions in establish, he said. New York City's watershed is only one of two in the state that has a special status allowing it to use unfiltered surface water, he said.

Gruskin said that the fracking process itself is not one to compromise ground water near the drilling sites, stating it “just happens too deep in the earth for it to impact fresh water.”

However, he warned about problems from spills on the surface, which could threaten ground water.

"I believe the biggest threat to the water supply comes from spills," he said.

Other potential problems to watch out for, he explained, include the potential environmental impact from using more water in the process, use of toxic additives and propoer local and regional planning.

Currently, the DEC, in conjunction with other state agencies, is conducting a environmental review of the combination process of fracking and horizontal drilling. It is hoped, Gruskin said, that the earliest the DEC could make an environmental finding on the matter and begin to issue permits is a year from now, although he cautioned that factors such as lawsuits could arise.

At the end of Gruskin's talk, folks in the audience asked questions on a variety of matters, including relations with the industry and impact on the land.

Beth Levine asked what the social implications would be locally, and if local governments were being required to plan. Gruskin said it's "a mixed bag," with planning up to the local governments. He also explained that adding requirements for planning is difficult in light of state mandates in general becoming unpopular locally.

Elise Orlando asked whether farmers who were to lease their land - many people upstate would be in this position - could still farm. Gruskin responded by describing how there would be surface disturbance in areas with well pads contains the wells, as well as access roads. However, he also noted that horizontal drilling would go under undisturbed surface area. That farming, he explained, can be done on the edge of the drilling unit, above ground, without disturbance.

B Rezvan May 09, 2011 at 12:15 PM
The very act of drilling has caused aquifer contamination in over 70 wells in Bradford County, PA. The contamination has occurred before any hydrofracking. Considering the number of drills that have taken place, that is approximately a one in three "failure rate." Also consider the Chesapeake spill of April 20 in Leroy, PA, in which Chesapeake has not yet responded to the EPA or the PA DEP with the components of the "proprietary ingredients" used in the fracking fluid. The former official may be mistaken about the disclosure requirement in NY. So far although the drilling companies have "voluntarily disclosed" the components of their fracking fluids to the EPA as requested, none have disclosed the "proprietary ingredients" which when analyzed contain freely obtained industrial waste...everything from walnut hulls to diesel fuel (illegal), insecticides, and other carcinogens.
S Gruskfin May 09, 2011 at 02:23 PM
As I pointed out in my presentation, oil or gas wells that are drilled without proper casing or compliance with other technical requirements can cause contamination -- those requirements exist to maintain separation between the well and the underground water supply. This has nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing, but rather relates to the well drilling process, which has been used for decades in New York State and elsewhere before the current controversy arose. In New York State, there are presently over 13,000 active oil and gas wells which have been drilled in compliance with the state's rigorous requirements without significant environmental problems (most people don't even realize that oil/gas drilling is a mature and successful industry in NYS), and those same requirements will apply if high volume hydrofracking is allowed in the state. New York's approach of ensuring that the environmental risks are objectively and comprehensively addressed before drilling takes place is validated every time one of these problems occurs somewhere else that does not have the same regulatory approach. In my presentation I tried to highlight the areas where there are very significant environmental issues to be addressed -- and there are many -- but the actual drilling process and proper well-casing requirements are very well-established and have been successfully regulated in New York, and that will not change if the proposed drilling moves forward.
Elyse May 09, 2011 at 03:27 PM
Why not invest time and money into safer fuel? Are we really supposed to trust some of the same companies responsible for disasterous spills actually have our environmental and health concerns in mind? I absolutely hate how matter-of-fact these companies come across... "yeah spills may happen... But we have been doing this for a long time". It's easy to say when they're destroying land and communities they don't live in. The damage being done is not worth the risk in my eyes... Entire communities... Farms... Contaminated. Lives ruined. I'm sorry I can't personally place a dollar sign next it. If our dependency on foreign oil needs to go out the window, there have to be safer, more natural options out there that don't put the American people at risk. Perhaps if these companies invested the same amount of time and money into truly green fuel we'd all be in a better position for a greener, more affordable tomorrow without laying our property, our families, and our communities on the line.
Matt kaler May 12, 2011 at 02:40 PM
Like all environmental problems the issue has many sides. When clean water becomes a more expensive commodity than fuel. Then big business will profit from that too.
Analog Kid May 13, 2011 at 10:19 AM
it “just happens too deep in the earth for it to impact fresh water.” Bullshit. Have you seen the documentary "Gasland"?? It should be viewed by every single American. How much is the industry paying you, Gruskin?
S Gruskfin May 13, 2011 at 01:13 PM
Thanks for the thoughtful comment. As the people who actually went to the program know, I don't work for industry or anybody else on this issue. The nature of your comment does, however, help make the point I made about the nature of the public debate, and how objectivity has been lost in favor of subjective responses. In my presentation I highlighted the serious environmental issues and risks and discussed the many reasons to be concerned, but based upon what I have seen and read, the migration of fluids thousands of feet through through various rock layers to fresh water aquifers is not as likely a problem as, for example, spills and improperly cased wells. Gasland presents a particular point of view very well, which you obviously agree with, but I suggest that there may be more information out there than you get from the film.

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