Toxic Byproduct – hydro-fracturing: Finger Lakes town gives gas drilling the finger

In the Finger Lakes region of Upstate New York — a beautiful, wild part of the country, dotted with farms and homesteads — activists are fighting to keep the five lakes free from byproducts of natural gas drilling. Natural gas, which is being touted as “clean, green energy,” is far from it. Gas is a fossil fuel that emits C02 when it is burned to generate electricity or for residential uses, contributing to global warming. Getting gas out of the ground requires a tremendous amount of resources and the drilling creates toxic byproducts.

In the tiny village of Pultney, which overlooks one of the Finger Lakes (Keuka Lake), residents were able to block a proposal to dump bi-products from a natural gas drilling process known as hydro-fracturing, or “fracking” for short. Fracking is a technique used to create fractures in shale, tight sand or coal beds in order to retrieve more oil or gas from the ground. According to “Typically, in order to create fractures a mixture of water, proppants (sand or ceramic beads) and chemicals is pumped into the rock or coal formation. Eventually, the formation will not be able to absorb the fluid as quickly as it is being injected. At this point, the pressure created causes the formation to crack or fracture.”

The use of fracking to extract natural gas from Marcellus shale — black shale bedrock in parts of New York, Pennsylvania and West Virginia — is expanding rapidly as gas consumption expands and other sources of gas dry up. Fracking requires some pretty nasty chemicals to break up the shale to get to the natural gas. In some parts of Pennsylvania, for example, Chesapeake Energy is responsible for multiple spills of hydrochloric acid, one of the chemicals routinely pumped with water into the ground as part of the “fracking” process. Other chemicals used include: volatile organic compounds, such as BTEX formaldehyde, sulfur dioxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, nitrogen oxides, metals such as arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, lead and mercury, hydrogen sulfide, and diesel fuel, as well as many others.

Most of the chemicals used to frack stay in the ground, and may eventually seep into ground water. But about 2 percent of the contaminated water seeps back up and has to be put somewhere. Since Pennsylvania, the area where most of the drilling is occurring, passed laws keeping Chesapeake Energy and other companies from disposing of their waste water there, they’ve turned to New York to look for places to put it. They decided the best way to dispose of the polluted water is to truck it to other wells they have drilled that have either “dried up,” or never produced much, pump the toxic waters into these wells and then “cap” them. Supposedly capping the wells will keep the toxic sludge underground and in the wells.

But this makes no sense. How can anyone believe Chesapeake Energy when they claim there will be no leaking of these toxins into surrounding water? Essentially, they are creating little fault lines in our bedrock, which makes it very easy for water to seep from one place to another.

The well in Pultney that residents were most concerned about was only about a fourth of a mile from Keuka Lake, which remains one of the cleanest of the Finger Lakes. Chesapeake Energy wanted to send three trucks to the well per hour, filling the well with 180,000 gallons of toxic water per day for ten years! Residents of Pultney pointed out that the roads leading to the well are mostly seasonal, in some cases dirt roads, so the possibility of a truck turning over and toxic waste spilling was very high. Chesapeake Energy sent letters to town supervisors assuring them that their truck drivers where careful and that such accidents would be quickly handled by HazMat professionals. But the nearest city with a HazMat facility is nearly a two hour drive. By the time a HazMat team would be able to respond to a spill, chances are most of the toxins would be in the lake.

Luckily for Pultney and other residents of Keuka Lake, both human and nonhuman, area-activists swiftly responded to the proposal and got Chesapeake Energy to back down, at least for the moment. Chesapeake Energy sent a letter to Eric Massa, claiming they didn’t need that well anymore anyway, because they “have significantly enhanced our produced water recycling program and, as a result, we are no longer actively pushing for the resolution of our local permit request.” How long they stop actively pushing is anyone’s guess. Most of Pultney’s residents fear this isn’t the end of the battle. They continue to be diligent and keep their eyes on the activities of Chesapeake Energy, preparing for what some fear will be a long-term battle with the energy giant.

Meanwhile, gas drilling is expanding across the region, spewing toxic waste and prolonging addiction to earth-destroying fossil fuels. What can we learn from Pultney’s small victory and how can we expand it to thousands of towns and villages across the globe?

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