NYC Opposition to DEC Fracking Rules Continues: Natural Fractures, Brittle Rock, Aging Tunnels…Oh My!

lions-tigers-bears-oh-myIt’s going to be a long summer for both those for and against drilling in the Marcellus Shale in New York State. The state DEC released new draft drilling regulations just last week and already there’s plenty of jockeying going on to either support or oppose the new regulations. A public comment period of 60 days (August & September) will be followed by more tweaking of the rules before a final version is approved by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.

Even though the new draft rules put the New York City watershed area off limits to drilling, that doesn’t seem to be good enough for some Downstaters:

If the proposal is adopted in coming months, the state would allow drilling near aqueducts but would require a site-specific environmental review for any application to drill within 1,000 feet of the water supply infrastructure.

That’s not enough to protect New York City’s water, said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is based in the city.

"There needs to be a buffer area in which there’s no drilling whatsoever,” Sinding said. "Just having elevated review doesn’t cut it.”

At the center of the debate is a system of tunnels constructed in the mid-20th century that carries 1.2 billion gallons of water a day from upstate reservoirs to New York City and nearby counties. The network is already fragile — tens of millions of gallons of water leak out each day. One repair project is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

In comments on a previous draft of the state fracking guidelines, the city said brittle rock surrounds many of the tunnels. Drilling nearby could shift the earth, exerting pressure on tunnel walls that they weren’t designed to withstand. Natural fractures extend as far as seven miles out and 6,000 feet down through the earth; gases and fluids already have a tendency to migrate through those fractures and toward the aqueducts, according to the city.

These geologic features, together with drilling errors like the ones that have contaminated water wells in Pennsylvania, "could result in significant surface and subsurface contamination,” the city wrote.

Though state environmental experts have concluded that gas, natural fluids and fracking fluids — a mixture of water, sand and chemicals used to crack open the earth — would not migrate beyond the targeted rock, city environmental officials have argued there isn’t enough evidence to prove this couldn’t happen. This debate is at the center of the disagreement.*

*ProPublica (Jul 14, 2011) – State fracking rules could allow drilling near New York City water supply tunnels