EPA report raises new caution on fracking

A bipartisan group of elected officials joined opponents

A bipartisan group of elected officials joined opponents of natural gas drilling by hydraulic fracturing at city hall to announce that 5,700 gallons of clean water from New York City's watershed will be trucked to families suffering from fracking-related water contamination in Dimock, Pa. (Dec. 6, 2011) (Credit: AP)

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A federal report highlighting the presence of chemicals used in a natural gas drilling method that were found in a water aquifer in Wyoming prompted calls Thursday for New York to extend its environmental reviews before approving the practice in upstate counties.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found chemicals used in hydrofracking to be in water aquifers in the town of Pavillion. While alternative sources of contamination were considered, the draft report said fracking, which involves the pumping of millions of gallons of chemical-laced water to release gas from shale underground, was the "likely" cause.

In the wake of the report, Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), chairman of the environmental committee, called Thursday for New York to take "more time" to study the effects of fracking. "I want them to take into consideration this information as far as health impacts go but also as far as financial impacts to residents and to the state's taxpayers," he said.

Sweeney said he's also concerned that taxpayers could be on the hook for unforeseen environmental problems stemming from the drilling practice. He pointed to the many brownfields in the state where industrial pollution from years past is still being cleaned up.

The energy industry wants to extract natural gas from shale formations that lie under much of Western New York, the Finger Lakes region and the Southern Tier. The companies and officials of some communities in the regions tout fracking's ability to bring jobs to areas with struggling economies.

Last week, the state Department of Environmental Conservation extended by a month the public comment period for its environmental review and proposed regulations for hydrofracking. That review will be completed on Jan. 11, and no further extensions are planned, said DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.

In a statement, the DEC said the EPA findings "point to poor well construction and hydraulic fracturing directly into and beneath drinking water supplies as the causes of the problem." Proposed requirements in New York "are more stringent than Wyoming's standards. If high-volume hydraulic fracturing is allowed to move forward in New York, it would be done in deeper formations where the natural gas exists and not within underground sources of drinking water," the DEC said.

Drinking water tests in Wyoming found chemicals consistent with contamination from gas production but at levels "generally below" any danger to health and safety standards. Even so, residents have been cautioned against using well water for cooking and drinking.

Long-term exposure to benzene, one of the chemicals found in the Pavillion aquifer, but not found in its drinking water, can cause leukemia in humans, according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

The gas industry downplayed the EPA report. Kathryn Klaber, president of the Marcellus Shale Coalition, an industry group, stressed the report's preliminary nature. "It is entirely too early in this process, given the lack of peer-reviewed data, to arrive at any kind of absolute conclusions," she said in a statement.

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