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.