Thursday, March 24, 2011

Wales (NY) Considers Outlawing Hydro-Fracking

Wales, NY (WBEN) -- The Town of Wales is poised to adopt a law banning the controversial gas-drilling technique of hydraulic fracturing, more colloquially known as hydro-fracking.

The concern is that hydro-fracking could inadvertently lead to the contamination of the town's water supply.

"The Town of Wales relies 100 percent on well water. We have no public water available to us," explains town Councilman Michael Simon, who helped write the proposed legislation.

Simon says he didn't know very much about hydro-fracking until recently, when he started doing some research. The more he learned, the more worried he became.

"My understanding of it - and I'm not an expert - my understanding is that certain liquids and semi-solids are inserted into the [gas] well at such high pressure that it fractures the shale that contains the gas. The fractures actually release the gas, and the companies have a way of controlling the release of the gas back up through the well. What we're concerned about is the injection of these substances into the ground," Simon tells WBEN.

"Statistically, my understanding is that only 20 to 30 percent of what's injected is actually removed, and taken out of the ground. So these substances that are actually injected, for the most part, stay there," he says.

Simon says he, co-sponsor of the law Councilwoman Jude Hartrich, and other supporters of the ban aren't so much concerned about the natural gas as they about the chemicals used to break the shale. It's the chemicals that they worry could end up contaminating their well water, rendering it unusable.

Proponents of hydro-fracking insist the technique is safe, and that the risk for such contamination is minute. Simon admits, in his research, he's found no instances of cases where contamination happened. But just because it hasn't happened yet, he notes, doesn't mean that it never could.

New York is currently imposing a moratorium on hydro-fracking, while state environmental officials study the risks and benefits of the practice. But that moratorium is scheduled to end late this summer.

"The DEC is getting pretty close to completing their environmental impact study on the practice," Simon explains. "From what I've heard, there's the expectation that Governor Cuomo is going to lift the ban. So we just want to be in a position where we're protected, in the event that the ban is removed."

The proposed Town of Wales law reads, in part:

...this local law then bans the commercial extraction of natural gas and oil, using the process commonly known as hydraulic fracturing, and further bans horizontal gas well drilling within the Town of Wales, because those forms of extraction violate the civil rights of Town of Wales’ residents by posing a direct and immediate threat to the health, safety, and welfare of residents within the Town of Wales;
It further states:

Permitting the activity of commercial gas or oil extraction utilizing hydraulic fracturing and/or horizontal gas well drilling violates the rights of residents and endangers their health, safety, and welfare by allowing the intentional deposit of toxins into the air, soil, water, environment, and the bodies of residents within our Town. The activity poses a threat to some if not all of the natural water supply upon which the Town of Wales relies as its sole source of water. Contamination of ground water, risks to air quality, the migration of gases and hydraulic fracturing chemicals to the surface, the inability to recover injected fluids and chemicals, and the potential mishandling of waste, are all potentially adverse impacts that may occur. The potential costs associated with possible environmental clean-up processes, loss of land value and human and animal health concerns are undetermined. Fracturing fluid used far below the earth's surface can pollute fresh water zones, contaminate surface or near-surface water supplies, impact the rock shelf causing seismic events or lead to surface subsidence. Also, water-related pollution events that occur from hydraulic fracturing are on, or relatively-near, the surface. With the transport, handing, storage and use of chemicals, and chemical-laden water, on sites, accidents that release materials into the environment may occur.
A public hearing on the proposed law was held Tuesday night. Simon estimates that of the 100 or so residents who attended, about 95 percent were in favor of passing it. The Town Board is scheduled to vote on the law at its regular meeting on April 12, and Simon expects that the legislation will pass at that time.

However, even if that happens, the well water supply still won't be completely protected.

"What's interesting is that, with horizontal drilling, theoretically... somebody in the town of, for example, Holland could drill a well, use the horizontal drilling process, and actually drill under the Town of Wales, and not necessarily be in violation of our local law," Simon explains. "Which is the reason that we believe that it will be important for other localities to get on board with us and pass similar bans."

"I believe this is a situation where, there's strength in numbers. Just because of the physical capabilities of this type of drilling, we're not 100 percent protected just by prohibiting the practice within the town limits."

"We're hoping that our town will get out in front of it, and then maybe, set the example for other towns," Simon says.

Wales would be the first municipality in New York State to impose a permanent, legal ban on hydro-fracking.

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