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Comforting Comerford

The commissioner of the Buffalo Sewer Authority, David Comerford, is by most accounts a good guy and a straight arrow. But he’s had a difficult couple of months, due to this newspaper’s accounts of wastewater from hydraulically fractured natural gas drilling sites being dumped at BSA’s sewage treatment plant.

How comforting, then, must have been his appearance before the CitiStat panel comprising Mayor Byron Brown, Deputy Mayor Steve Casey, and CitiStat coordinator Jessica Maglietto on March 9.

It was a veritable love-in. Comerford’s quick response to complaints was noted, and his top-notch staff was praised. Brown and Casey lauded Comerford for holding the line on sewer rates through six consecutive budget cycles. Brown said, although it is human nature to assume, when government works well, that things are merely as they should be, Comerford’s work deserved special recognition. “I can’t express enough how significant that is as a management accomplishment,” Brown said, to which Casey added, “And at the same time you had some new union contracts…?”

(At this point, Brown suggested that Comerford’s success in labor negotiations—a success that often has escaped the Brown administration—contained a less on to the city’s other unionized workers: “I would say to the unions that givebacks are not a bad thing. That should not be a bad word.”)

After all this appreciation, Brown said he understood that there were some “misconceptions out there” regarding BSA and its acceptance of waste produced by hydraulic fracturing. (Brown pronounced the last two words as if they were new to him.) Then Brown turned over the proceedings to Maglietto, who said, “Recently the Sewer Authority unintentionally received some hydrofracking fluid, and we were hoping that you could talk to us about what mechanisms you were putting into place to make sure this doesn’t happen in the future.

“And please feel free to reiterate your role in this whole situation—that of course you knew nothing about this at the time.”

Is this the sort of tough questioning that is supposed to yield more efficient, responsive government? Is this CitiStat at its best? No. Instead, it was a re-affirmation of the story that the administration has offered since the disposal of frack fluid in the city’s sewer treatment plant was revealed in January.

Comerford said that BSA had a prohibition against accepting fracking fluid. But Comerford and his industrial waste administrator, Leslie Sedita—that’s the Erie County District Attorney’s wife—signed contracts last year with Waste Technology Services that explicitly state the company’s intention to ship wastewater from hydraulically fractured gas well sites to BSA, up to 40,000 gallons per day.

Despite having signed those contracts, Comerford said that the first he’d heard about the fracking fluid coming to BSA was when an employee of US Energy, the drilling company that subcontracted with Waste Technology Services, mentioned that frack fluid was coming to BSA during a Common Council hearing. Comerford says he asked Waste Technology Services about the services the very next day, didn’t like the answer they gave him, and so decided to cancel their contracts. If that’s so, both Comerford and Sedita lied to this newspaper—because we called to ask about the matter several days after the Common Council hearing, and both Sedita and Comerford told us that BSA had never accepted any waste material from natural gas drilling sites. Comerford said that he’d never even heard of US Energy.

Comerford also said that the wastewater BSA received from Waste Technology Services was not frack fluid but “leachate,” water that rises to the top of the well when it rains. One assumes that the distinction between leachate and frack fluid—water mixed with sand and a cocktail of chemicals that is pumped into a well, some of which returns to the surface carrying radioactive material as well as the original chemical cocktail—relies on information from the waste company he accuses of lying about what they were sending to his agency.

Comerford said that testing demonstrated that the waste BSA accepted from Waste Technology Services did not demonstrate levels of chemicals consistent with frack fluid. But New York Department of Environmental Conservation, as well as a BSA employee, told us that the trick to enabling BSA to accept frack fluid was dilution, either at the well site or during shipping, so that the chemical concentrations fell below a regulatory threshold.

Someone was sending us something unbeknownst to us,” Comerford told the CitiStat panel, and now it’s over: He’s cancelled BSA’s contracts with Waste Technology Services and BSA won’t ever accept waste from drilling sites again.

But I don’t think that’s quite right, either. I think Comerford and Sedita were caught doing something they should not have been doing. (Whether or not they know they should not have been doing it is a different question.) Now they are trying to make the embarrassment go away, and this CitiStat proceeding abetted that effort.

As for the whole thing being over? Hardly. At a meeting of New York’s Independent Oil & Gas Association this week, State Senator George Maziarz expressed enthusiasm for the permitting of deep-well, horizontal hydraulic fracturing, which is the subject of a moratorium in the state. Deep-well, horizontal hydraulic fracturing uses 10 times as much frack fluid per well as the type of drilling currently allowed in New York State. The drilling jobs, the gas, and the taxes and fee would not be the only economic boons for the state, Maziarz said: So would treatment of the waste produced in the process.

Maziarz claimed that sewage treatment plants in Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda were prepared to accept frack fluid. Soon, the companies that take their business there will once again be knocking at the BSA’s back door, too.

geoff kelly

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