Andes residents speak out against fracking

Video clip: Andes resident Laurie McIntosh (a.k.a. Story Laurie) delivers her testimony in song, at a public forum on gas drilling last Friday.

On the evening of Friday, August 19, over 100 people crammed into the Andes Central School auditorium to air their views -- mostly anti-drilling -- at a town forum on hydraulic fracturing held by the town board.

About half of the forum was devoted to a very detailed presentation about the hydrology and geology of gas drilling in the Marcellus shale, by USGS geologist William Kappel. 

Kappel also discussed the safety record of the Marcellus gas play in Pennsylvania. Based on Pennsylvania's experience, Kappel said, about one in a hundred wells has some kind of problem with environmental contamination, and that one in three or four hundred wells has a serious problem, such as groundwater contamination or gas migrating into an aquifer.

Kappel emphasized that as a government scientist, he was not there to argue for or against the practice of hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling, and urged residents to focus their efforts on their legislators if they were unhappy with the direction New York State is going.

“It's relative risk. I'm not going to tell you that it's safe or unsafe. I'm here to provide information to you. It's up to you folks to make that decision,” he said. “If you don't like what I'm talking about, get to your state legislators, get the legislation changed. If you don't like the rules, get the rules changed.”

After Kappel's presentation, local residents had the chance to make public comments on gas drilling and whether the Town of Andes should pass some kind of legislation to ban or regulate it. The forum was moderated by local consultant Margery Merzig, who is currently working on a draft of a potential town law for Andes.

Of the roughly two dozen speakers, only one expressed support for the idea of allowing hydraulic fracturing to occur locally. Most speakers at the forum spoke in favor of passing some kind of local legislation.

Even if the tide of local opinion is against allowing gas drilling in Andes, keeping the rigs at bay is not as simple as the town passing a ban on hydraulic fracturing – or, as some have suggested, a ban on heavy industry. As Kappel noted, New York State resource extraction law places the ultimate authority for permitting gas extraction in the hands of the state, which supersedes local home rule.

Kappel quoted a segment of Article 23, the section of New York State law that governs oil and gas drilling: "The provisions of this article shall supersede all local laws or ordinances relating to the regulation of the oil, gas and solution mining industries; but shall not supersede local government jurisdiction over local roads or the rights of local governments under the real property tax law.”

“What's this mean? You can't zone out hydrofracking,” he said.

In its latest draft of the soon-to-be-finalized regulations on gas drilling, the state Department of Environmental Conservation did include some language about home rule for towns – a significant change from the previous draft of the SGEIS. But the agency stopped short of saying that local gas drilling bans would have the full force of law, proposing that any conflicts between local zoning and land use by a gas drilling company would trigger an additional review of the company's permit by the DEC.

In her comments to the board, Bovina resident Heidi Goggins mentioned that a legal nonprofit in western New York called the Community Environmental Defense Council was actively working on the legal issue of home rule, and how it applies to gas drilling.

Nearly all of the land in the town of Andes falls within the borders of the Catskill-Delaware watershed, which supplies unfiltered drinking water to New York City. In its latest draft of gas drilling regulations, the DEC has proposed banning the practice of hydraulic fracturing within the unfiltered New York City and Syracuse watersheds. But some local residents worry that the watershed ban will not keep gas companies out of Andes forever.

Others are worried about the impact heavy traffic could have on the town, even if gas drilling does not occur within its borders.

“Imagine having lunch on the porch of the Andes Hotel or Woody's with a heavy diesel truck coming by every sixty seconds. I think it would destroy the town of Andes,” said Michael Suchorsky.

Ann Roberti said that if gas drilling were allowed in Andes, it would fundamentally change the character of the town.

“Zoning against drilling is not a taking, it's a keeping. We have to take action to keep the town we love.”

Jack Doig, who raises grass-fed beef cattle on Route 28 on Palmer Hill, said that as a farmer, he worried that the industrialization of the landscape would destroy his farm and his ability to market local beef.

“If frac fluid bubbled up in one of my pastures and one of my cows drank that stuff, it would be all over for me. I'd be out of business,” he said.

On the other side of the issue, only Vera Tzelepis-Liddle spoke out.

“I believe in technology, progress, and growth,” she said. “What are we going to do if we don't have jobs here anymore?”

Merzig told the audience that the Andes draft law would probably be ready to present at the next town board meeting, which will be held on Tuesday, September 13.