Today’s news:

Board Defers Vote on Gas Drilling in Watershed, Citing Need for More Info

Despite a looming deadline for commenting on the state’s plans to allow gas drilling close to or inside the New York City watershed, Community Board 14 has declined for now to take a position on the matter.

At the board’s December meeting, held at Public School 249, Caton Avenue and Marlborough Road, members voted overwhelmingly to table the issue, recommitting it to the Community Environment Committee.

The vote to table followed the introduction, by committee Co-Chair Robert Newman, of a resolution approved by the committee, to recommend that the state legislature approve a bill introduced by Assemblymember James Brennan “to prohibit natural gas drilling by the hydraulic fracturing method within the New York City watershed, or anywhere within five miles of the watershed boundary.”

In addition, the text of the resolution included a recommendation that the Department of Environmental Conservation -- which is currently drawing up rules for gas drilling, with a December 31st comment deadline for the public -- “refrain from issuing any permits for natural gas drilling by the hydraulic fracturing method, especially in or adjacent to the New York City watershed, until the department has assessed the cumulative impact of such drilling throughout the state and its region,” has “enacted binding regulations and standards governing the issuance of drilling permits” that would include assurances that the waste water from the process not contaminate drinking water sources, and has sufficient resources to “enforce compliance.”

The committee had previously considered the issue during its December meeting, held at the board office, 810 East 16th Street, at which it had heard from representatives of NYH2O, an organization, according to a flyer produced by the group, “dedicated to protecting our drinking water from the harmful effects of hydraulic gas drilling.”

Governor David Paterson has already indicated support for allowing gas drilling in the state, in large part because of the potential economic benefits, with the state able to charge hefty fees for permits. But, say advocates, that boon could be far outweighed by the cost should something go wrong during drilling, and sources of drinking water be contaminated.

The major concern is that extracting natural gas from the gas-rich Marcellus Shale utilizing the hydraulic fracturing method could cause contamination of the water that New York City drinks. While Chesapeake Energy, the company that has bought up leases in the watershed area with an eye to drilling there, recently said it would not drill within the watershed, advocates would be happier with an outright ban on drilling there.

A key issue revolves around the process used to extract natural gas fromdeep underground, which involves pumping a large quantity of chemical-infused water into a well and drilling horizontally soyou can reach gas in a wide area.

The process is done under high pressure, and the water that is utilized -- millions of gallons, daily, according to Ron Hine of NYH2O -- has to be extracted again and disposed of in some fashion.

Should contamination occur in the watershed, advocates say, a costly filtration plant would have to be built, and it is possible that the water in the area would no longer be potable. Indeed, that has been a by-product of hydro-fracking in some areas, said Hine, who said, “About 350,000 people in Pittsburgh can’t drink the water.”

In addition, there have been reports of the death of aquatic animals from the contaminated water being diluted in local bodies of water, as well as well water that has burned in areas where hydro-fracking has occurred.

Concerns over the impact of hydro-fracking have also been exacerbated by the fact that Congress exempted it from the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act in 2005. The city is also studying the issue, and has indicated concern, but has not yet taken a formal position ondrilling in the watershed, Hine told the committee, noting it was his understand that, should the state give the go-ahead for drilling in the watershed, the city would sue.

While CB 14 has largely eschewed getting involved in issues that go beyond its borders, “Air and water pollution don’t pay attention to community district lines,” stressed Newman during the committee meeting.

But, while Leslie Dreifus wondered, during the general board meeting, “If the resolution goes far enough,” other board members clearly felt that approving the resolution without further study would be precipitous.

“It’s harsh to prohibit the use of the method since we don’t know enough,” remarked Barbara Sheeran.

“Why do we have to put in aresolution now and jump the gun on what the city is going to do?” asked Joe Basso.

While the board did not take a stand, that does not mean that individual members can’t do so, noted Alvin Berk, the board’s chair, who stressed that members could submit their testimony to the DEC before the deadline. “That may impact that body,” he concluded.

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