When, at the end of 2014, Gov. Andrew Cuomo declared a statewide ban on the environmentally unsound practice of fracking — high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing for natural gas — many of us breathed a sigh of relief, only to discover that New York City remains vulnerable to harm from gas drilling waste and from plans to expand the state’s gas delivery infrastructure. The AIM pipeline, for instance, will be built next to the aging Indian Point nuclear plant. An explosive pipeline rupture, though unlikely, could happen and cause unthinkable consequences for Riverdale, less than 30 miles away and, of course, the entire region.
The fossil fuel industry has come to regard the state’s fracking ban as no more than a pesky mosquito on its shoulder in otherwise open territory for pipelines, compressors, landfills and roadways to move, utilize and store fracked gas and its chemically-laden, sometimes radioactive by-products from Pennsylvania and elsewhere.
The shale gas revolution of the past few years — especially since 2011 — has brought what seems like an explosion of gas infrastructure projects and a flood of fracking waste water and drill cuttings into New York. More than 510,000 tons of solid waste and 23,000 barrels of liquid waste — and counting — from oil and gas extraction operations in neighboring Pennsylvania have been shipped to New York landfills for disposal.
During the same five years, however, peer reviewed studies have shown that there are harms to health from fracking and its by-products that include risks from air and water contamination and, most recently documented, from methane and other gas emissions from infrastructure.
Municipalities and county legislatures played an important role in the fight against fracking. Before the state acted, they acted on their own with more than 200 local bans. These helped to convince the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation to recommend the Governor’s executive order.
The battlefield has now shifted to limit fracking’s collateral damage. At the moment, there are 15 county bans on the disposal of fracking waste in New York landfills or water treatment plants and/or the spreading of fracking waste on roads as a de-icer or for dust control. The potential environmental and economic consequences of the migration of this toxic waste to water resources and agricultural operations, in addition to its public health impacts, has raised concerns upstate and down.
Downstate, the New York City Council is currently considering a bill to ban the sale, disposal, discharge or use of fracking waste in the five boroughs. This waste is known to contain harmful pollutants and high levels of naturally occurring radioactive material, posing a serious public health threat. In NYC, the use of these by-products for de-icing city streets, highways and park roads would create an unacceptable threat to drivers, road-workers, traffic cops, pedestrians, pets, parklands and lakes, streams and waterways. New York City needs an absolute ban on the use of fracking and other drilling waste and stiff penalties for non-compliance.
Thanks to Councilman Andrew Cohen, an early sponsor, Int. 446 has a chance of making it out of committee soon. If others would follow his example, the council would be able to take bold action and send a signal to the industry as well as to state legislators that the use of this waste will not be tolerated.
Mr. Cohen is also a sponsor of the Council’s resolution, also in committee, to call upon the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to not relicense Indian Point 2 and 3, the highest ranked reactor in the country for core damage from an earthquake. This facility is already vulnerable to terrorism and accidents. The construction of the AIM pipeline to carry fracked gas next to it is an unconscionable increase in risk, and a striking example of the runaway expansion of gas and oil infrastructure in New York. The Governor has asked the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the industry-friendly federal agency that oversees pipelines, for a stay of construction pending further study but was recently turned down.
A new study from Harvard reveals that the recent mysterious and dramatic spike in methane emissions found in the US is attributable to the spike in fracking operations and infrastructure. Methane, which is escaping into the atmosphere at huge rates, is now recognized for its short-term climate damaging impacts, a more immediate threat than carbon emissions to climate stability, public health and the economy.
It is becoming clearer every day that natural gas, which is now primarily fracked gas, must not be regarded as a green fuel or a bridge fuel as we have been led to believe. It is one more fossil fuel that we must leave in the ground, and by-products off our city streets, as we immediately implement the critical transition to renewable, clean energy.
Hilary Baum, a resident of Riverdale, directs Chefs for the Marcellus, a food industry group dedicated to preservation of sustainable agriculture, and is a member of the New York State Sustainable Business Council.