Friday, October 30, 2009

First DEC hearing draws ire

Between now and Thanksgiving the NY Department of Environmental Conservation is hold four - count 'em: 1, 2, 3, 4 - public hearings to collect comments on the 809-page draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, aka the dSGEIS. This document is focused only on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing used to extract natural gas from Marcellus shale (and other shale deposits).

They held their first hearing at Sullivan County Community College on Wednesday night, October 28. According to Liz Bucar, who blogs at Breathing is Political the vast majority of the standing-room-only crowd was opposed to drilling in New York State. She gives way more local color than the ProPublica gal; have fun reading.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Owego Town Planning Board to Patriot Water: You've Got Work to Do

About 50 residents showed up to the Town of Owego Planning Board meeting last night (Oct. 27) to learn more about the Patriot Water Treatment LLC plans for recycling frack fluid. The planning board, which is the lead agency for this project, has the authority to approve or reject the site plan. Last night, after listening to the company's proposal and an hour or more of citizen comments, the board decided that they needed more information before making a decision. They gave Andrew Blocksom, one of the Patriot Water owners, a long list of items they'd like more information on by the next meeting.

Seems like the biggest issue that both residents and planning board had was the lack of detailed information: What exactly is this process of cleaning up the frack waste? Where will the recycled water go? What happens if there is a spill or a flood? Will there be open pits (impoundments) holding frack fluid? And why can't we find your company on the internet?

Turns out Patriot Water Treatment LLC is brand-spankin' new, created only recently by three guys who see the potential in offering a service to the gas companies. They'll be leasing the water treatment equipment from Aqua Pure, a company out of Calgary, Canada that is on the web. The process, Andy explained to me after the meeting, is one that precipitates out the heavy metals and solids (which get transported to a proper waste facility) and then - if the remaining water is not too salty or doesn't have too high a level of TDS (total dissolved solids) - they send it through a distilling process and the "clean" water is trucked back to the wells to re-use for fracking. The brine (wastewater) is sent to an injection well in Ohio - at least for now. (Fortuna has a permit to test a "non-producing" gas well in Van Etten for potential as an injection well - more on that later.)

Aside from the fact that this company is new, and that Andy gave what he called his "kindergarten" presentation [and clearly not enough details to satisfy the locals and the planning board], what really bothered folks was that he constantly said that the frack waste was "not hazardous" and "not toxic". The other issue was the amount of truck traffic - 4 trucks/hour, 24 hours/day, 7 days a week - routed up and down a steep hill near through residential areas.

"Why not follow the regular truck route through town?" asked one guy. Another wanted to know whether the planning board could put a route restriction on the trucks, and quite a few expressed concern about the taxpayers underwriting the road maintenance for repairs, as each truck will weigh something on the order of 80,000 pounds.
So, where will this treatment facility go? On the site of the old Chevy dealership on Taylor Road. This is zoned an "industrial" area, and sure enough there are a bunch of industries there already: Sanmina, Lockheed, Moore's Tires and service center, a bowling alley, a wastewater treatment plant and a small electrical business. There are also four churches and a preschool within a couple minute walk from the site, and the nearest residence is a mere 500 feet from the edge of the pavement, where the frack tanks will be lined up - not 1500 feet as stated a week earlier at the county planning board meeting. As some folks pointed out last night, the area is already zoned industrial, and the idea of recycling frack waste sounds good; it might reduce the amount of water pumped out of the local rivers and streams.

But, as the planning board said last night: there are a lot of unanswered questions.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Frack Waste Treatment Plant in Owego?

While I was deliberating budget matters during our town library board's monthly meeting, the members of the county planning board were deliberating whether or not to allow a frack-fluid treatment plant into the next town over.

Somehow a draft copy of the Tioga County (NY) Planning Board minutes for the Wednesday, October 21 meeting ended up in my in-box; reading them was nearly as exciting as reading Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets.

Patriot Water, LLC hopes to establish a treatment facility where the old Chevy dealership used to be. The business, they say, will treat hydraulic fracturing flowback fluid and transform it into "distilled water" which can be re-used by gas drillers for further fracking. It will also create a whopping 20 jobs.

The treatment facility will store frack fluid and their treated water in tanks on-site. They plan to build an enclosed impoundment (pool) to store incoming frack fluid - lined with two 36-ml rubber linings and assembled using bolts.

Patriot Water LLC estimates that the average truck traffic to their facility in the near future will be 4 trucks/hour running 24 hr/day - and that will increase over time. They also note that although their proposed site is in the 100-year 500 -year * flood plain (and there have been at least two big floods there in the 20 years I've lived here) that this will not be an issue. In fact - they're not required to obtain a floodplain permit! (corrected 10/ 27 at Owego Town Planning Board meeting)

The real gotta-turn-the-page reading came with the comments. Andy Blocksom, the Patriot Water representative, insisted time and time again that the 200,000 to 240,000 gal/day of frack fluid they'll process is not toxic. "It's just water with a small portion of heavy metals and brine," he said - and we all know how healthy arsenic and cadmium can be, not to mention Radium 226 and 228, just two of the "Normally Occurring Radioactive Materials" (NORM) that are sure to be present in flowback from Marcellus wells.

But, hey, DEC doesn't call this stuff toxic. They don't even call it hazardous. To DEC all this frackin' stuff is simply considered "industrial waste".

On top of that, if there is a flood Patriot Water will simply stop accepting frack fluid and let what they've stored just "dilute and drain" with the floodwater - into the Susquehanna.

At the end of the discussion the Tioga County Planning Board recommended approval of the site plan. Tonight - Tuesday, October 27 - the Town of Owego Planning Board will meet at 7pm to address the Patriot frack fluid ("this is not toxic stuff") treatment facility. Update later....

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Gas Leases & Real Estate

My neighbor down the road is a farmer. Like most of the farmers I know she is down-to-earth, can fix just about anything, and practical. During a discussion the other day about landowner's rights to lease, she raised two good points: that a landowner could be held liable for damages that might occur to a neighbor's water should contamination from drilling occur, and the difficulty of selling leased property.

Last spring I interviewed a few realtors in gas-drilling areas, asking them if they'd experienced any trouble selling properties. Dave Knudsen, a Sullivan County realtor with the Catskill Buyer Agency, said that during the summer of 2008 he fielded two calls a week from investors looking for "100 to 200 leaseable acres".

"They were asking for land near the pipeline," Dave said. But his other clients, downstaters looking for a quiet country home, had other priorities. Their first question was: are the neighbors leased? If so, they didn't want to look at the land.

Dave isn't the only one. A Finger Lakes area realtor said she had more than the usual trouble matching prospective home-buyers with their country dream house. One 32-acre parcel near Ithaca was rejected twice because of the lease. The second buyer even had a house package worked up for the land, but the bank denied him a loan because of an existing gas lease on the property. The ultimate buyer figured he could build a house before the gas company moved in to drill a well.

To read the complete article go to

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Horseheads Village approves Schlumberger project despite citizen protest

In the Southern Tier of NY, the message that “gas drilling will bring jobs” is heard so much that some folks have come to believe it. And it’s not just the drilling that will bring jobs, but the support industries. Like Schlumberger Technology – a huge multi-national corporation that supplies natural gas drilling sites with explosives, fracking chemicals and more.

For the past several months the good folk of Horseheads, NY have been wraslin’ with the issue of whether or not to let Schlumberger Technology build a warehousing and trucking facility at the industrial center. For Schlumberger it makes sense: they’d be able to service drilling operations in NY, PA, OH and WV.

For the folks in Horseheads – well, for some of them – it makes sense, too. Schlumberger would transform vacant land at the industrial center into a taxable entity, and (according to the slick color brochures) they’ll provide about 400 jobs for the locals. In a depressed economy in an even more depressed state, who wouldn’t be for jobs?

The thing you have to know about Horseheads is that it’s a small historical village located north of Elmira and south of Seneca Lake. The industrial center, also known as the Center at Horseheads, is located close to the center of town, and the Schlumberger building site is bordered by residential areas and an elementary school.

Some folks in town like the idea of having Schlumberger as their next-door neighbor. Others don’t. And then there’s a third group who wouldn’t mind having Schlumberger move in – as long as they don’t mess up the water or pollute the air. Or blow things up in the middle of the night.

The other thing you need to know is that the Village board of trustees took on the task of being lead agency for the State Environmental Quality Review for the proposed Schlumberger project. They read through stacks and stacks (well, at least a 6-inch high pile) of documents and held a few public meetings and even a hearing or two about the project.

What the village elders didn’t do is ask Schlumberger to complete a full Environmental Impact Statement. Instead, they relied on a 20-question “Environmental Assessment Form” and, despite public concern about environmental issues, gave Schlumberger the green light for the project.

Two days after a contentious public hearing the Horseheads Village Board of Trustees approved the site plans. Of course, Schlumberger has to meet a short list of conditions – like making sure they get their Stormwater Pollution Prevention Plan (SWPPP) approved and meet the village building codes…

But some folks think that’s not enough. They want the village board to do their job and require Schlumberger to conduct a full environmental review. They feel the board rushed to judgment when, as one woman said during the hearing on October 13, “We don’t know enough.”

What bothers folks? The number of trucks that will be hauling toxic fracking chemicals around their neighborhoods. The diesel and other air pollution from idling trucks at the facility. Water from the truck wash flooding into the wetland just over the road, and contaminating the local aquifer which lies two feet below the surface, not to mention polluting the streams and the lake.

What bothers folks? The potential for a chemical spill at the facility. The potential for a truck accident that would result in a surface spill of chemicals. The potential for endocrine-disruptors and carcinogens to get into their drinking water. The potential for an accidental release of toxic fumes or an explosion at the industrial center.

But what really bothers folks is that the whole thing seemed like a “done deal” way back in July; that the board was just going through the motions of public meetings and hearings because they were on the SEQRA checklist. Most telling indication: when the village attorney, clearly frustrated by the continued focus on environmental issues, shouted, “It’s my public hearing!”

“No it’s not,” said the folk. “We’re the public; it’s our hearing.”

What the village board and those favoring the project seem to have forgotten is that the issue is more that one of being for or against economic growth. “Being concerned about environmental and health issues is not trying to stop a company or stop people from getting jobs,” one person pointed out. “It’s about keeping every one safe.”

To read more about the Schlumberger project in Horseheads go to

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Paper Chase: getting a copy of the new Marcellus drilling regs

Want to read a copy of New York State’s new regulations for drilling in Marcellus Shale? Hope you’ve got a computer because the DEC (Dept. of Environmental Conservation) isn’t planning on printing them for a broad distribution.

On September 30, after more than a year of waiting, the DEC released their draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (dSGEIS) – but on-line only. It’s not just the folks living on top of the Marcellus shale who’ve been waiting to read this document; industry folks have been yammering for publication of the regs since spring.

What’s the big deal? The draft SGEIS is an environmental assessment that outlines safety measures, protection standards and mitigation strategies specifically for gas wells that rely on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing.

It’s a hefty document - 809 pages, about the length of the most recent Harry Potter book. Unlike the Harry Potter book, print copies of the dSGEIS will be as rare as dragon teeth. Oh, they’ll be available – just not in convenient places.

“First we’ll make sure print copies are available in DEC offices,” said Yancey Roy. He’s the DEC spokesman who gets to answer all the hard questions. Then the DEC will place copies in certain libraries that are document repositories. In my library system, which serves five counties, there are 33 libraries. Only four will receive bound copies – that’s not even one per county!

The kicker – Yancey says that beyond that puny effort, DEC is “making no provisions to provide print copies to the public.” Not only would the cost be prohibitive but a large printing would level a small forest.

That means that the average Joe will need to go on-line to read the proposed regulations. And quickly, too, because comments are due by November 30.

Because the regulations outlined in the draft SGEIS impact everyone living above Marcellus shale, there is much public interest in the recently released document. But for people living in rural areas, many without access to high-speed Internet and some without home computers, reading the dSGEIS online is not a viable option.

The impending comment deadline has local municipal officials and county legislators scrambling for their reading glasses and other folks scrambling to figure out how they’re gonna read the document in 2-hour chunks at the library – assuming they’ve got a way to get to the library. Not so easy a thing to do in the rural areas.

Our library, which happens to be one of the regional repositories for DEC documents, is only open three hours each afternoon, and a couple hours in the mornings two days a week, plus Saturdays. Oh yeah, there’s a couple hours on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, too – but those are also the nights for Village and Town Hall meetings, not to mention that most people are probably down at the high school cheering on our “can we make it to state again” volleyball team.

So, while DEC dithered about printing costs, a bunch of local folks downloaded the draft SGEIS onto flashdrives and headed to the nearest copy center. Turns out it cost ‘em close to $77 to get the entire document printed, but they cracked open their piggy banks and donated copies to their communities. In one town where there isn’t a library folks can drop by the local market for a cuppa coffee and peruse a chapter or two whilst catching up on the latest gossip.

Of course Shaleshock has a copy or two up in their office for folks to read, and they made extra copies for the county library – which is a repository but didn’t get the document from DEC until late last week.

As one person said, if the DEC can’t get a print document to the stakeholders, how will the DEC be able to tackle the much larger issue of regulating the thousands of gas wells expected over the next couple of years?

No answer from Yancey on that one yet…. but if you want to read the document you can, at