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A Pot of Gold - or a Fracking Disaster Waiting to Happen?

(photo by Stephanie Berberick)

Environmentalists urge New York State to hold off licensing a controversial natural gas mining technique

Jessica Schwartz-Mannes is the mother of six-year-old twin boys, and like all concerned parents she wants nothing for her children but a good future. She believes a drilling procedure for natural gas may endanger that dream.

“I don’t want my children to grow up in a world where they won’t be able to have a glass of water or take a shower,” she says.

What worries Schwartz-Mannes is the possible threat to water quality in New York State presented by a means of natural gas extraction called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

Fracking is a pressurized injection process that forces water, sand, and chemicals into the earth in order to free natural gas that was previously unreachable. The injection—millions of gallons for every well—causes fractures in rock formations that allow trapped gas to come to the surface.

In an era of unprecedented consumption, supporters of fracking argue that natural gas is a much-needed resource, but Shwartz-Mannes and many others who gathered last Tuesday outside the Buffalo office of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation believe the price we would pay for fracking the state’s gas-rich veins of Marcellus Shale would outweigh the benefits.

“I will be very disappointed if [fracking] is allowed here. As a matter of fact, I will be pissed,” says Michael Parke who recently moved back to Buffalo after being away for two years. “I think the whole thing is pretty scary, and I plan to get more involved with this issue.”

Parke is not alone. Last Tuesday, New Yorkers across the state organized demonstrations in front of local DEC offices to urge state government to support the Englebright-Addabbo bill, which would suspend all hydrofracturing permits from being issued until the federal Environmental Protection Agency has thoroughly investigated the controversial practice.

“We just don’t want the DEC to give permits right now,” says demonstration coordinator and Buffalo native Rita Yelda. “We want [Governor David] Paterson to listen to us and know he did something to protect the water of New York State. We want to tell him not to play politics with our water or our lives.”

Fracking Stories

In 2002, the National Resources Defense Council prepared and submitted a report to the US Senate, which was then considering a moratorium on regulating the practice of hydraulic fracturing under the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. Among the stories the NRDC offered as evidence of fracking’s liabilities are these:

Alabama, Lake View

The Hocutt family’s water well became contaminated in June 1989 with brown, slimy, petroleum smelling fluid that was similar to the discharged hydraulic fracturing fluid that traveled downhill from the USX-Amoco methane well near their house (reportedly killing all plant and animal life in its path). Water from a landfill containing municipal and industrial wastes reportedly was used in the fracturing fluid. USX-Amoco closed the well and bulldozed the site in 1991. Ms. Hocutt and her husband have both experienced a variety of diseases including cancers of unknown etiology. At least 8 more neighbors also have some form of cancer of unknown etiology. EPA Region IV staff collected only two grab samples from the well 6/26/90. No targeted contaminants were detected in the samples.

Alabama, Adger

Francis Herring complained of an oily smell in her drinking water in 1989 after hydraulic fracturing of a nearby coalbed methane well. AL Dept. of Env. Management implied receipt of similar complaints elsewhere when their first question was whether or not there was a methane gas well nearby. EPA Region IV staff collected only two grab samples from the well 6/26/90. No targeted contaminants were detected in the samples.

Alabama, Adger

The McMillian family’s drinking water well became contaminated with an oily substance and methane gas after hydraulic fracturing of a coalbed methane well near their home. A private consultant’s testing results confirmed the presence of methane gas in the water well. Alabama Oil & Gas Board (OGB) only tested for naturally occurring contaminants. EPA did not sample and test the well water until nearly 10 months after the event. EPA samples did not contain contaminants, but ordered the core well sealed to prevent escape of methane gas. State agencies claimed not to have a complete list of chemicals contained in the hydraulic fracturing fluid. MSDS were finally obtained for the fracturing fluid through a FOIA request. The McMillians had to haul their own water for seven years until they installed a whole house filtration system. They have no assurances that the problem will not occur again.

Virginia, Wise County

A car wash business located near a coalbed methane well hydraulic fracturing project was forced to close when its well water became too contaminated to operate.

Virginia, Buchanan County

Sheila McClanahan, Buchanan Citizens Action Group, claims that over 100 documented complaints of adverse effects of hydraulic fracturing of coalbed methane wells have been received by the state, but have allegedly been intentionally misclassified and filed as impacts of long-wall coal mining.

Virginia, Dickenson County

Dickenson County Citizens Committee claim ground water quality has deteriorated throughout the county as a result of the large number of coalbed methane well hydraulic fracturing events. Only 40% of the county is served by public water.

The Marcellus Shale

The Marcellus Shale extends over roughly 600 square miles of the eastern United States from Upstate New York southwest to Western Virginia.

Fracking is believed to be responsible for cases of water contamination across the United States. People who have water wells near fracking sites have complained of burns, rashes, and even flammable drinking water—a phenomenon captured on video by filmmaker Josh Fox in his Sundance award-winning documentary Gasland, currently airing on HBO, about the dangers of fracking.

Jessica Ernst of Alberta, Canada says fracking took place near her home and water supply in 2004. By 2005, Ernst noticed that her “water dramatically changed.” She says the water repelled her dogs, caused burns to her skin and eyes, and during showers she was no longer able to get suds out of her soap and shampoo.

Gas drillers are loath to discuss the liquids used in hydraulic fracturing, but one of them is diesel fuel, which contains a number of carcinogenic compounds, including benzene, ethylbenzene, toluene, xylene, and naphthalene. Other chemicals found in fracking fluids include methanol, formaldehyde, and hydrochloric acid.

Hydraulic fracturing is currently employed in 34 states.

In a letter to the DEC’s regional director, Craig and Julie Sautner of Dimock, Pennsylvania, wrote, “We used to have clear, pristine water in our well before the natural gas drilling started. It was less than a month after they started drilling that our well was contaminated. We now have high levels of manganese, aluminum, iron, sodium, chloride, TDS, and heavy metals with highly saturated methane gas.”

Some residents of Dimock reported having enough methane traces in their water to light it on fire. Dave Bailey complained to that using his washing machine sets off the smoke detector and because of the high concentrate of free gas in his water supply he had to move his family to a motel for months in order to avoid an explosion.

While these reports are distressing, there is no proof that hydraulic fracturing results in water contamination, because studies of the process are scant at best. In 2004, the Bush administration declared fracking to be safe, and in 2005 exempted the oil and gas industry from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act. But in the past two years Congressional leaders have pushed for more studies and greater oversight. In March, the EPA announced that it would study the potential negative impacts that the process has on drinking water, but study results aren’t forecasted to be available until late 2012.

Yet New York State is scheduled to begin issuing permits to fracking operations this August.

Julia Walsh, project director of the Frack Action campaign, spoke at one of the statewide demonstrations last week, saying, “We’re here today because the DEC is poised to start handing out permits for companies to begin this risky new procedure in rural counties located all over New York State. We’re asking for more time to study the effects of fracking on our drinking water, on public health, and the environment.”

“It is true that clean drinking water is a basic need of life and losing that is scary,” says Buffalo native and fracking opponent Robert Thoren, “but the fact that we don’t know if the worst could or would happen is the really bad part.”

Natural gas burns about 50 percent cleaner than the cleanest coal, so some environmentalists are torn over fracking, echoing Congress’s call for greater regulation and implementation of best practices: tracer dyes in fracking liquid in order to track its migration; the use of less hazardous compounds in the fracking liquid; better disposal practices for waste liquid.

Although a comprehensive study of the process—the sort of study the EPA is doing—has never been done, the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority did have a report compiled for them by NTC Consultants of Saratoga Springs.

The report, completed in September of last year, compared fracking to other common drilling procedures, as summarized in DEC’s 1992 Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or GEIS, which set generic standards for gas drilling under the State Environmental Quality Review Act, or SEQRA.

NTC reported that hydraulic fracturing on the Marcellus Shale, which covers approximately 18,000 square miles of New York State, could provide the state with enough natural gas for nearly 20 years and could turn revenue of more than one billion dollars each year.

While the report listed no immediate dangers caused by fracking—which may be due in part to the lack of studying water affected by the drilling—it did mention that the GEIS states “The potential for severe negative impacts from any ONE site is low. When all activities in the State are considered together, the potential for negative impacts of water quality, land use, endangered species and sensitive habitats increases significantly.”

Under SEQRA, revenues from the process must benefit the owners of the land where drilling takes place, as well as the communities surrounding of the drilling sites. In an era where farming is an increasingly difficult profession, and municipal governments are cash-strapped, some percentage of an estimated billion dollars per year is more than appealing. Governor Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, where fracking has resulted in a number of horror stories, has proposed raising taxes on drilling companies in order to help close the state’s budget gap. In January, New York’s Governor David Paterson said “an extraction tax is something we would look at.”

The Joint Landowners Coalition of New York is not blind to the economic stimulus fracking promises. The coalition’s website states that “gas production will generate tax revenue that will flow to our schools and municipalities by means of what is known as the Ad Valorem tax. Through laws and efforts that are coordinated between New York’s Office of Real Property Services and local assessors each community where drilling occurs will see an influx of funds that come from the gas producer and not the average citizen.”

The site goes on to note that “it is expected that 6% of the value of the gas produced will come back to the community that the gas was produced in. All at no expense to local residents!”

Six percent of the estimated one billion is quite a chunk of change, especially in troubled economic times. There are as yet no completed studies of impacts on water quality from hydraulic fracturing, but the anecdotal evidence is impossible to ignore. On the other hand, the industry is eager to take advantage of the State’s promising drill sites. New Yorkers must decide what guarantee they covet most: clean water or easy money.

For more information about hydraulic fracturing, please visit,, and You can check out the EPA’s course of action at

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