What's going on in Germantown?

Town’s Anti-Fracking meeting July 26th

Although there was a point in time when I thought this meeting might be cancelled because of the dire storm warnings being broadcast, we were fortunate to see the storm head south of us.  Happily, there was a fairly large diverse crowd attending. Here are my notes:

On Thursday, July 26th, the town of Germantown held a meeting where information about the negative impacts of Hydrofracking was presented.  There were about 35 attending, including Ray Staats, Supervisor of Clermont, and Town Board members from Livingston and Clermont, as well as interested Germantown Residents.

Supervisor Roy Brown introduced the three speakers, Ann Rubin   Norman Mintz and George Rodenhausen.

Anne Rubin, is an activist who has researched and worked on groundwater protection in Dutchess County for several years, and who is currently enrolled in the Cooperative Extension Master Watershed Steward program.  She spoke first and outlined the operational process of hydrofracking.

She led the audience through the steps, from choosing a suitable site, leasing the land from the owners, building the large area for the well itself and the associated space for handling the traffic to and fro from the wellhead.  Roads must be built to the site, storage and parking areas need to be included and, in addition, a large lagoon or pond for the waste water to be stored and sediments allowed to settle.. Wells are dug to whatever level needed to reach the desired strata for applying pressure.  A mixture of sand, water and a cocktail of various chemicals is forced down the well with great pressure, and that pressure forces the intrusion of the mixture into any naturally occurring fissures or weak sections in the deep ground.  When this pressure is relieved there is a flow-back of the sand, water, and chemical mixture plus natural gas that the extreme pressure has released from the underground depths. From that return flow the gas company begins the process to separate the gas from the unwanted detritus flowing out of the well.

The amount of resources to get through this operation is very large, and trucks transport vast amounts of water and sand and chemicals to the well site.  Trucks also remove a great portion of the leftover hazardous waste. Hundreds of tons of supplies are transported into the site and hundreds of tons of waste are removed. Ultimately, the gas itself will be transported by pipelines, which need to be built across the countryside.

The first hazard occurs when the chemicals are added to the mixture that is injected in to the land.  The exact formula for the chemical mix is “proprietary information” and gas companies have declined, and they have not been forced, to give an accurate list of ingredients used.  However, the known general mixture contains many chemicals that are considered toxic and many are known as carcinogenic, such as Benzene.  A study done in Colorado shows 14 different health problems that could be shown to be made worse from exposure to the chemicals used in Hydrofreacking.  The negative effects on health from the whole process can be listed, in part; air pollution at the well head from leaks, air pollution from the evaporation from the settling ponds, danger to the underground strata from the extreme pressure applied, seepage of toxic chemicals into groundwater from leaks in the well casings over time, inadequate regulation of the disposal of the hazardous waste including concentrated salts.

The NY State Department of Environmental Conservation (no irony implied!)  has been directed by the State to use the “highest efficiency” as a criteria to determine regulations for the industry.  If the DEC approves the process then the industry is exempted from filing SEQRA (environmental impact) reports on the effects of the activity across the entire state. After an initial approval, the DEC withdrew its report because of a wide political blow-back that it was done too hastily and didn’t include enough data. They still have not released a final “new” report, but will do so in the coming months. At the Federal level, more than a decade ago the industry had succeeded in establishing the Halliburton principle that exempts the industry from most environmental regulations. Environmental groups and individual activists have mounted a state-wide campaign here in NY, decrying the DEC’s position, as it has been understood so far.

Ms. Rubin finished her presentation with the statement that although the natural gas industry claims it is a “clean fuel” (because it burns cleaner than coal burning), the process is extremely unclean and energy inefficient in its use of natural resources and general destructive impact on the environment and poses human health hazards.

Norman Mintz, a Germantown resident, spoke about the impact of fracking on both the natural resources and the quality of life in community as a whole.  On behalf of the Preservation League of NY State, he had spent some time in the eastern part of Pennsylvania exploring the area where many fracking wells had been drilled.  He noted that the appearance of that part of PA had been very similar to our region, rolling hills, small farms, wooded areas, small towns and hamlets.  Now that the area had been opened up to natural gas drilling much had changed.  The roads were overburdened with large trucks traveling 24 hours a day, 7 days a week to bring in the vast amount of sand and water and chemicals to the drilling area.  Small country roads are packed with heavy trucks. Noise, dust and vibrations never seem to stop. Traffic jams occur in the centers of small towns since there are no by-pass roads build for heavy traffic. The increasing traffic results in  more accidents, and an increase of the burden on small communities. In addition there are “Compressor Sites” that need to be built all along the path of the pipelines to maintain the proper flow rate of gas. The rural landscape has been turned into an industrial area.

Where do the millions of gallons of water come from?  From the headwaters of nearby rivers.  In PA some rivers have had their water levels lowered beyond what is needed to keep fish healthy and the surrounding water table suffers from depletion caused by the deprivation of the normal water supply. The sites of the wells themselves take up many acres, often the tops of the grand hills, which are leveled off and clear-cut to make way for water lagoons, the storage of supplies, the roads and ancillary activities for the well, and, of course for the continual stream of trucks all day that go in and out of the site.  He warned that towns can be badly damaged in the long term by the “boom Town” syndrome that ultimately benefits only a few and produces negative impacts on most of the other residents.

George Rodenhausen, a partner in the law firm that took the winning case to the courts over this issue,  laid out the elements of what  New York had done to promote energy development within the state.  NY adopted a law that pre-empted towns’ rights to regulate drilling activity, and placed that right within the Department of Environmental Conservation.  This was to promote “efficiency”, eliminating the need for gas companies to obtain multiple permits and variances from individual towns. Apparently the legislators thought that would ensure that the DEC would have control over where drilling could be done.

However, some towns adopted new zoning laws to keep natural gas drilling out of their towns. The gas drilling companies made a court challenge that the towns had no right to exclude drilling because the state laws clearly pre-empted the towns’ rights. George Rodenhausen’s law firm defended the Town of Middlefield, NY against the gas industry’s claims on the basis that although the state law gave the DEC the right to regulate the operation of drilling for gas, it was unconstitutional to deny residents’ rights to due process to seek relief through zoning laws in their community.  In other words, the state can say how to drill, but the towns may say where–and where not—they can drill.  The case is facing appeal but the experts say that the “due process” basis is seldom discounted.

Mr. Rodenhausen said that it is clear that using the Zoning Law is the only secure method for a town to safeguard its ability to ban gas drilling in their community. He said “The Law is simple.”  He said there were three paths a town could take:

  1. Ban gas drilling, “Fracking”, and all its activities within the town through the Zoning Law.
  2. Adopt a Zoning Law that allows gas drilling in certain specific areas,
  3. Do nothing and allow the state to decide if there will be drilling within the town.

Middlefield had banned “heavy Industry” including gas drilling, in their town with certain exemptions for existing businesses. The court has upheld their actions.

Mr. Rodenhausen said that if a town changes its Zoning to forbid Fracking, any property owner who may have already signed a lease for drilling can not claim compensation for his loss. The courts have ruled that the signing of such a lease was a speculative effort and had no value if it could not be executed.

Mr. Rodenhausen stressed that there is a “constitutional right of each town to determine its land use decisions.”

Finally, he said that there were so-called “land men” out there who ere still trying to sign lease agreements that could be exploitive in intent.  If anyone approaches you about a gas-drilling lease—call a lawyer!

The meeting was opened for a short Q & A session.

In response to one question regarding the application of well waste products on local roads he said that a County could ban backwater waste on its own roads; towns themselves must act regarding their own local roads.

The meeting closed at 9 PM.. A subequent meeting will be scheduled to cover the positive aspects of hydrofracking with presentations by industry representatives.

To the best of my note-taking ability,

Kay Abraham 537-5404

Corrections, additions welcomed


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