Health review likely to cause fracking delays

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Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's recent decision to order a Health Department review of a controversial natural-gas extraction technique known as hydraulic fracturing is expected to further delay a closely watched decision with wide implications in business and environmental circles.

Cuomo has rebuffed the notion that the review signaled a change in policy favoring environmental groups opposed to the technique.

"There is no step back," Cuomo said at a meeting with reporters last week.

Rather, he said, a clear decision on hydrofracking, which uses drilling with chemical-laden water to dislodge large pockets of natural gas hundreds of feet below ground, can be made only with a full understanding of potential health impact. Cuomo said he had rejected a demand by environmentalists who had sought a review by outside experts.

A four-year ban on new hydrofracking permits could extend into next year after the Department of Environmental Conservation reopened the rule-making process. The DEC has said it does not expect to make a Nov. 29 deadline to issue the new regulations.

Cuomo said the additional health assessment would allow any eventual rules, if approved, to better withstand legal challenges, which he called "likely."

Gas drilling companies, increasingly frustrated by the state's regulatory review, say the latest health study is unnecessary.

"We don't need a prolonged, full health assessment if the regulations and supplemental generic environmental impact statement are done correctly," said James Smith, spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association, a group representing 400 companies and people in the industry.

Smith called health concerns about fracking "manufactured fear designed to stall or stop all natural gas development" in the country.

While hydrofracking itself won't happen on Long Island because the shale deposits are found upstate, the potential impact could reach here. Five Long Island sewage plants have been identified by the state as potential sites for treating hydrofracking wastewater, though it's far from clear whether any waste would actually come here.

Assemb. Robert Sweeney (D-Lindenhurst), who has sponsored three bills seeking to restrict and review fracking and reclassify waste from the process, said the further health assessment was needed because of the likelihood that fracking would increase air pollution throughout the state.

Fracking "absolutely has the potential to affect us on Long Island," he said. "The more that we learn about hydrofracking and see what's happening in other states, the more we realize there are an awful lot of issues."

The Assembly passed a Sweeney bill this year that would eliminate an "enormous loophole" in state rules that prevents materials from oil and gas drilling being classified as hazardous waste, he said. The bill stalled in the Senate, but Sweeney said he'd put it back on the agenda next year.

While the State Senate has been less enthusiastic in passing anti-fracking legislation, that body has fracking critics. Sen. Kenneth LaValle (R-Port Jefferson) opposes regulations that would allow it "until health studies convincingly prove there is not a threat," said spokesman Drew Biondo.

LaValle co-sponsored legislation that would have placed a moratorium on the practice, and "will not support fracking until there is clear convincing proof that it doesn't pose a threat."

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