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Nyack Sketch Log: Fracking Finds Fresh Foe

by Bill Batson

The fight over fracking in New York State is reaching a fever pitch. Natural gas advocates claim the drilling technology is safe and can lead to energy independence. Opponents present evidence that the practice pollutes public aquifers. Here is the story of what transformed Valley Cottage resident Michelle Solomon into a committed fracking foe. And a diagram that follows the controversial drilling method from the desk of former Vice President Dick Cheney – to the de-icing agent that the DPW could someday spread on our streets.

In a recent Congressional hearing, an executive from the oil and gas industry described North America as sitting on a “virtual ocean of natural gas.” New York is situated at the northern end of a massive shale stone basin called the Marcellus formation that extends from the southern tier of the state to Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Natural gas is trapped in the shale stone.

Since the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005, natural gas drilling has become widespread in the three other shale basins located in the western and southern United States. Called by some the “Halliburton Loophole,” the legislation was ushered into law by then Vice President of the United States, and former Halliburton Chairman, Dick Cheney. The law exempts natural gas companies, like Halliburton, from the regulatory provisions of the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act and the Safe Drinking Water Act.

Natural gas is extracted through a procedure called Horizontal Hydraulic Fracturing. Millions of gallons of a pressurized mixture of water and chemicals are injected into a rock layer thousands of feet below the earth’s surface. This process causes fractures in the shale that release natural gas. The pipes that carry the fracking fluids underground and captures the escaping gas must pass through the water table. Critics say hydrofracking contaminates the water, ground, air and food supply for populations adjacent to the drilling sites.

Filmmaker Josh Fox, who lives in a rural community in Pennsylvania that has felt the effects of fracking, describes the massive scale and harmful impact of this drilling technique in his 2010 documentary Gasland.  The film is famous for showing property owners in several states lighting their contaminated tap water on fire.

In Gasland, Fox reports that approximately 450,000 natural gas wells have been drilled in the western and southern United States since the passage of the Energy Policy Act of 2005. He estimates that between one and seven million gallons of fracking fluid, containing 596 chemicals, is used up to 18 times to open each well. Critics assert that the fluid, which is already unsafe from the introduction of the fracking chemicals, returns to the surface containing radioactive elements such as radium-226.

If you follow Fox’s math, this industry has already produced 40 trillion gallons of liquid infused with agents that are linked to cancer and birth defects. The deregulation authorized by the Energy Policy Act puts the environment surrounding these drilling operations at risk as potential unmonitored and unmitigated contamination sites.

The oil and gas industry now wants to open up New York State to Hydraulic Fracturing. Michelle Solomon became involved in this issue at the exact moment when New York State was deciding to frack or not to frack.

“I got a flyer about an anti-fracking rally in Mahwah organized by the Native American community last June. I went because I have always been drawn to Native American spirituality and notion that being connected to and protecting the earth is part of being a full human being.” At that event, Michelle was further inspired by a speech by cancer survivor, environmentalist biologist, author and mom, Sandra Steingraber. Like Steingraber, Solomon beat bladder cancer after tumors were discovered during a routine sonogram when she was pregnant with her son Max.

After attending her first rally, Solomon called New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s office to express her opposition to fracking. Her advocacy might have ended there, if she had not watched Gasland in December with Max, who is now twelve.  “What I saw  in that film was unbelievable. I could no longer not pay attention to what was happening around me.”

In addition to igniting drinking water, the film ignited Solomon’s activism. In a few short months Solomon has travelled to Albany to attend a protest at the Governor’s State of the State address, established Rockland Coalition Against Fracking that has a Facebook page with 350 subscribers, organized a well attended forum and screening of Gasland at the Nyack Library and launched the Youth Environment Society (YES)  to engage children her son’s age in efforts to protect the earth.

The debate over fracking in New York State is at a critical juncture. According to the Associated Press, Governor Cuomo was about to approve 40 fracking wells in late April, but changed course after the intervention of environmentalist and former brother-in-law Robert Kennedy. On March 6, the New York State Assembly passed legislation that establishes a moratorium on fracking until May 2015 and requires further studies on how the controversial drilling practice impacts human health and the environment. The moratorium requires passage in the Senate and the Governor’s signature to take effect.

The Politics of Fracking

Chairwoman of the Rockland County Legislature Harriet Cornell (D-District 10) is drafting a local law that would ban the introduction of hydrofracking wastewater into Rockland water treatment plants and ban the use of hydrofracking brine on county roads to prevent hazardous by-products from contaminating Rockland’s water and environment.

On March 5, Senator David Carlucci (D-Rockland/Westchester)  introduced legislation in the State Senate that would suspend hydrofracking in New York State for a period of 24 months to accommodate two ongoing and major public health studies.

On March 6, the New York State Assembly passed a bill calling for a moratorium  on fracking until May 2015.

Reports of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s (D- NY) indecision on the issue antagonize both sides of the fracking debate.

Although Solomon is pleased that legislators are taking a stand and will applaud a moratorium if enacted, she sees trouble down the road unless more people become aware and engaged.

Here is a troubling case in point.  In an effort to dispose of the 40 trillion gallons of contaminated waste, and to simultaneously turn a profit, the oil and gas industry is repackaging fracking fluid as a de-icer for highway maintenance and selling it to local governments. Westchester County has enacted legislation to ban the sale, application, and disposal of toxic fracking waste products in the county; Rockland County is drafting restrictions to do the same.

Visit Rockland Coalition Against Fracking to learn about the dates and times for screenings of the documentary Dear Governor Cuomo featuring actor Mark Ruffalo and for information about other environmental issues such as Desalination and Indian Point.

You can also join the Youth Environment Society team that Michelle and Max are organizing for Earth Day on Sunday, April 21st in Memorial Park, Nyack and Riverkeeper’s annual Riversweep on Saturday, May 11th at Parelli Park in Piermont.

Bill Batson is an activist, artist and writer who lives and sketches in Nyack, NY. Nyack Sketch Log: “Fracking Finds Fresh Foe” © 2013 Bill Batson.

The Nyack Sketch Log is sponsored by The Corner Frame Shop at 40 South Franklin Street in Nyack, NY.

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