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War of words between both sides on fracking

Demonstrators gathered early outside the Forum Theatre in Binghamton before Thursday's public hearing on fracking.
Matt Richmond
Demonstrators gathered early outside the Forum Theatre in Binghamton before Thursday's public hearing on fracking.

The vast majority of those who lined up before the doors of the Forum Theater in Binghamton opened on Thursday, were there to speak out against hydrofracking in New York State.

They were there for the second set of hearings, hosted by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).

Some, like state Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, were disappointed with how regulators have handled the run up to fracking:

"There is no health study. There is no real plan to deal with the polluted wastewater," she testified. "There is no assessment of the cumulative impacts. There is no economic impact study. And on and on. While there have clearly been some improvements in this draft, many of these critical issues remain unaddressed."

Others, like Glen Williams, just don't trust gas companies.

"There is a smell in the air. The only ones who really know what is coming are the top people in the gas industry and most top level politicians," he railed, during his allotted three minutes. "They are colluding to reap profits from drilling at the expense of all of us."

Unbridgeable gap

The hearing was part of a comment period on a document called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement or SGEIS. The SGEIS is a review of the risks posed by hydrofracking for natural gas. If the state allows fracking to move forward, it will be because the SGEIS says it can be done safely.

And if the SGEIS gives fracking a thumbs up, it will also identify the risks that have to be regulated against.

Some at the hearings say New York just isn't ready: Not enough studies have been performed, not enough is known about fracking's possible effects on air and water quality. Others say New York can never be ready, that fracking could never be safe, no matter what.

It's a small disagreement and those two groups get along just fine. But if the public hearing in Binghamton is any indication, the divide between the pro- and anti-fracking groups is unbridgeable.

"Tell me where the jobs are going to come from? Natural gas!" was the charge from Kenneth Williams, a farmer who spoke at the hearing.  "Natural gas is the cleanest burning fossil fuel we know of today."

Williams was jeered during his testimony, as were others, for speaking in favor of drilling.

In all, about 300 people testified over two days of hearings, in Binghamton and Dansville.

"Neutral" zone

The scene outside the forum, before the hearings started, looked a lot like the fracking debate across New York.

At either end of the block, the pro- and anti-fracking demonstrators held signs and led the occasional chant. In the middle was what one police officer called the "neutral zone." It was empty.

Public hearings tend to draw out the most passionate advocates. And if you ask Loretta Sullivan, a member of the Tioga County Legislature, most people won't come and make their opinions known at forums like Thursday's.

"My constituents reside in an area of the state where most of the drilling will occur, or start. They are a part of the silent majority of hardworking landowners and community members," she said.

What she said next was met by laughter from the room:

"[My constituents] are not highly paid activists who are bused to these hearings." 

And so it went, speaker after speaker, saying their piece and riling the crowd. 

There are many possibilities for what could happen after the public comments end December 12. The DEC could take to heart the calls for a detailed assessment of public health impacts. They could finalize the SGEIS, sticking to their contention that the review is meant to be general and can't possibly predict every potential damage from fracking at the local level.

There is one thing that is certain though: There are going to be a lot of angry New Yorkers, no matter what the DEC decides.


WSKG/Southern Tier reporter for the Innovation Trail.
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