NY DEC Commissioner Says No Double Standard in Putting Some Watersheds Off Limits to Gas Drilling and Not Others

The new draft regulations that will finally allow Marcellus Shale drilling in New York State were published less than one week ago, but already Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) Commissioner Joe Martens is coming under fire for one of the key compromises in the rules. Politicians in New York City were steadfastly opposed to drilling anywhere in the Upstate watershed areas, which is where New York City gets its drinking water from. Mayor Bloomberg and others claimed the risk was simply too high—that if the city’s drinking water supply were ever compromised, a filtration system would need to be installed costing billions. And so to assuage those fears, the DEC has said no drilling in both the NYC and Syracuse watershed areas.

But opponents of gas drilling say if drilling is not safe in those watershed areas, why would it be ruled safe for other watershed areas? According to Martens, it comes down to filtration.

State Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens says he doesn’t see a double standard in new natural gas drilling recommendations that would bar a controversial practice in parts of the state and not others.

His department’s recommendations for regulating the natural gas drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing would bar the practice in the Syracuse and New York City watersheds, but would open about 85 percent of the gas-rich Marcellus Shale region to drillers.

Martens, in a meeting Tuesday with reporters and editors of The Buffalo News, said the New York City and Syracuse watersheds were singled out as deserving special protection because they are the only supplies of unfiltered drinking water in the state.

A surge in natural gas drilling, along with the increased truck traffic that comes with it, potentially could jeopardize the ability to tap those watersheds as drinking water supplies that do not require filtering.

If that happened, the municipalities that rely on those watersheds for drinking water could be forced to build costly water treatment plants that, in the case of New York City, could carry a tab as high as $9 billion, Martens said.

Martens said the Department of Environmental Conservation’s recommendations protect water supplies elsewhere in the state by barring drilling within 500 feet of the boundary of primary aquifers or private wells. Drilling also would be prohibited within 2,000 feet of a public drinking water supply.

“Our regulations are stricter than any other state,” Martens said.

“We have very ambitious setbacks from all water supplies,” he said. “I would say we’ve taken a cautionary and prudent approach.”*

But some politicians who are opposed to drilling don’t buy Martens’ logic:

…State Sen. Daniel Carlucci, (D) Clarkstown, questioned why what’s good for a large swath of upstate New York is not allowed in the two watershed areas.

“It does, however, raise a troubling paradox,” Carlucci wrote this week in a letter to the DEC. “If the threat of potential pollution is too great to subject the New York City and Syracuse watersheds to, why would it then be acceptable to subject water sources in the rest of the state to the same potential contamination?”*

Those who support drilling ask the same question. If it’s safe in some places, why not all places?

The argument that NYC and Syracuse use unfiltered water just doesn’t work for most people. MDN conclusion: This was a political deal. NYC was “bought off” with a promise of no drilling in the watershed area, and they don’t care what happens elsewhere in the state. Syracuse was thrown in to make it look good—window dressing.

*The Buffalo News (Jul 13, 2011) – DEC chief defends plan for ‘fracking’