First the EPA was going to hold the last public forum on their Hydraulic Fracturing study at Binghamton University. That was scheduled for August 12. But then BU officials started hearing rumors that the "tree-huggers" were going to hold a huge rally - and maybe 8,000 people would show up!
After some consideration they rescheduled the public meetings, holding them on Monday and Wednesday this week, with two 4-hour sessions each day. The venue: the old Forum Theater in downtown Binghamton.
About 400 people signed up to submit oral comments - that's 100 people per tightly-scheduled meeting. The first forum began at noon on Monday, but by 9:30 sign-toting people from all sides of the issue began gathering on Washington Street in front of the Theater. Those who were concerned that hydro-fracking would endanger their water and air were gently herded to the south end of the street by uniformed officers.
The hundred-or-so pro-drilling advocates, organized by the joint landowner’s coalition, gathered behind barricades at the north end of Washington Street. Sporting green caps and holding “Friends of Natural Gas” signs, they chanted “Pass the Gas” and “Safe Drilling Now”.
In between the street was empty, blocked off from traffic – a no-man’s land presided over by a handful of bored police officers and the occasional journalist looking for a sound byte.
The south end of the block tended to be livelier: a couple people erected a drilling rig, complete with a roulette wheel (take your chance! gas or water!); folks brought a diversity of signs, many hand-made; there was a "Frackin-stein" and this guy dressed in a hazmat suit.
Jawbones Prickens was handing out fake $100 bills fast as he could, which had a lot of worried parents grabbing markers to make their own signboards.
Oren Lyons, a traditional Faithkeeper of the Turtle Clan of the Onondaga Nation, stressed the importance of clean water for NY and for the world.
And Walter Hang, holding a map of NY with all the precious waterways colored in blue, rallied people to send the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) back to the drawing board.
The rally also drew people from the northern tier of Pennsylvania. Julie and Craig Sautner brought up a gallon of tap water from their Dimock, PA home. “We used to have clear, good water,” Craig said. That was before Cabot drilled. Holding up the jug of rust-colored water he shouted, “I can’t say that this will happen to you. But is it worth the risk?”
Inside the Forum Judith Enck, EPA regional administrator for region 2, insisted the new study on hydraulic fracturing will be “transparent and peer-reviewed”. Dr. Robert Puls, technical lead for the Hydraulic Fracturing Study, asked people to provide specific comments about the fate of fracking chemicals, where EPA should conduct case studies, groundwater concerns and where the "information gaps" are.
After a brief introduction, the public was invited to submit oral comments to the panel. Speakers were limited to two minutes, and a timer was projected on a screen. The meeting remained civil but contentious. Pro-drilling advocates, for the most part, tended to hammer on the same talking points: the lack of contamination caused by a narrowly defined process of fracking; the relative safety of the chemicals; and the economic need for the money gas drilling will bring to state and local economies and landowners. “Can Pennsylvania and NY citizens afford to be shut out of economic opportunities?” asked one landowner.
Environmentalists tended to focus on the broader picture. “It is wrong and dangerous to grant an industry wholesale exemption from our country’s most important public health laws,” said Congressman Maurice Hinchey, citing the Safe Drinking Water Act.
Tompkins County legislator Martha Robertson urged EPA to look at the overall carbon emissions resulting from the industrialized drilling required to exploit Marcellus and other shales. “High volume hydro-fracking may actually increase our carbon footprint,” she said, noting this will accelerate climate change. The daily emissions of carbon dioxide and methane from drilling activities in the Barnett shale are roughly equal to the emissions from a 1,500 MW coal-fired power plant, Robertson said. "That’s too much, especially given the disastrous effects of climate change on our water resources."