In New York, the 11th Hour in the Fight Against Fracking

It is an anxious and exciting time here in New York. We are in what health advocates are calling the 11th hour in determining the fate of New York and whether natural gas hydraulic fracturing (fracking) will take place in the state.

New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo and the Department of Environmental Conservation have a late February deadline to decide whether to lift the moratorium on fracking that has been effect in New York for the past 4 ½ years. Recently, media attention and public scrutiny has focused on fracking because of concern over toxins, sediment, and natural gas being released during the process and contaminating our air and groundwater.

Fracking has been banned by other places, including France (which banned fracking in 2011), but this method is still widely used in the U.S. In New York and elsewhere, CEH is concerned that we don’t know enough about the health and environmental consequences of fracking, and that in the rush to produce profits for the natural gas industry, protections for our health will be overlooked.

On Monday, February 4th anti-fracking groups rode in the early hours of the morning, making the long bus ride to Albany for a state legislative hearing on fracking. The hearing was the opportunity for the state legislature to question the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) on the agency’s proposal to permit future fracking and drilling projects in NY State.

NY State is faced with a February 13th deadline when the revised Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) will or will not appear in the DEC’s Environmental Notice Bulletin. The SGEIS legally has to be posted for 10 days in order to issue the final Findings Statement and final regulations by Feb 27th.

Additionally, the DEC, state Department of Health, and outside experts are currently working on a health review of fracking. Despite legal requirements for a full assessment of the health impacts from fracking, the agencies instead decided they would simply conduct review of the existing literature.

CEH and others have criticized this decision, which we believe could fail to adequately provide New Yorkers the information on health impacts that we need to inform decision making. Furthermore, the entire health review process has been shrouded in secrecy with no transparency or opportunity for public comment.

We have joined other New York health advocates in urging the Governor to open up the health review process and allow for public participation. We are calling on DEC to stop the finalization of the SGEIS, let the current regulations expire, and extend the moratorium on fracking.

At the legislature’s hearing on February 4,  DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens said the state could not predict a date for finishing the new fracking rules, and that any decisions would be dependent on the findings from the health review. He said he expects to get a report from New York Health Commissioner Nirav Shah in “a few weeks.” He also said that if the health review team finds additional measures that need to be addressed that it would be difficult to meet any deadlines.

Senator Tony Avella stated that, “My concern is that the DEC review was nothing and the scientists were asked to look at this and they are reviewing nothing”

Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton said that DEC’s review was a “backwards process, a convoluted process, and certainly not an open process.” She also made comments about the law adopted in Pennsylvania that bars doctors from sharing information about patients with health impacts from fracking. She asked Martens, “Doesn’t this kind of thing make you uncomfortable?”

Martens responded that any kind of government corruption made him uncomfortable but that it is not true that the entire industry is corrupted.

The hearing room was packed. One person estimated that there were about 350 people in the room. A line of protestors waited outside the hearing room trying to gain access. Arun Gandhi, grandson of Mahatma Gandhi, was among those present along with actor Mark Ruffalo, Josh Fox (Gasland) and other celebrities.

Following the Commissioner’s testimony about 500-600  protestors gathered in the staircase in the capitol building for a rally and a press conference chanting “Not one Well.”

Since the hearing, one of the Reviewers, Dr. Richard Jackson held a seminar where he called for an in-depth health impact assessment. He noted however, that his comments weren’t necessarily reflected in his review of the New York regulations:

“You can do health impact assessments briefly or you can do them in great depth,” Jackson said during the seminar. “I think we need a national one in great depth and it’s just absurd that we’re five to seven years into this vast enterprise of doing hydraulic fracturing and there’s not been a full-blown, national health impact assessment.”