ITHACA, N.Y. - Residents in this western New York college town, known for its picturesque waterfalls, have joined with others across Tomkins County and the state to protest a plan to extract gas from the ground by a process known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
Fracking has residents in upstate and western New York worried about their towns, and people in other areas, such as New York City, worried about possible contamination of their drinking water.
The procedure aims at extracting methane from an underground layer called the Marcellus formation, composed of sediments and organic material millions of years ago. In some areas, such as the town of Marcellus, the formation is near the surface, but in most places it is one to two miles below ground.
To bring the methane up from so far down, the gas company must drill far below the earth's surface, and then extend a pipe out horizontally for up to a mile. At the tip of the drill bore, explosives are detonated while two to six million gallons of water mixed with harsh chemicals are forced in at incredibly high pressure. The explosion creates fracturing in the rock, and the water forces the methane back towards the well to be harvested. Afterwards, the original drill area is sealed. The process is repeated every four to seven years in another portion of the horizontal well, over and over for up to 40 years. Each time, millions of gallons of fresh water is used-and contaminated.
The process is riddled with problems, say local residents, who have formed a coalition of organizations aiming to stop the fracking process before it starts in the state.
Andrew Byers, of Shaleshock, the anti-fracking coalition, says that even if the gas industry is right in saying that the procedure is safe - which seems not to be the case - there will be a massive disruption in the local lifestyle.
"You have 7,000 to 10,000 five-acre [wells] being drilled into the woods, with access roads to each one," Byers told the People's World. "Then you have diesel engines that are moving up and down every single one of those access roads. And every time a single well needs to be fractured, you have 200 tanker trucks that drive to it, and then 200 trucks that drive away, carrying the water. You have small country roads that are about to be inundated by chains of semi-trucks carrying fresh water from our local streams in, and toxic water out."
In order to be able to do this, gas companies need permission from landowners. Currently, in Tomkins County, where Ithaca sits, they have succeeded in getting 33 percent of the land leased to them. Under state Department of Environmental Conservation rules, once a certain amount of land is leased, the rest of the neighbors in the area must also lease the land, in return for monetary compensation.
According to Byers, the gas companies have been using tricky tactics to convince people to buy land in the area.
"No one in their right mind is going to purchase a piece of land with a lease on it that allows this type of activity," one disgruntled Ithaca resident told the People's World. "Why would someone choose to live next to something like that?"
In addition, there is the possibility of contamination of the water supply. In Pennsylvania, where fracking has already started, a recent small spill has had tremendous consequences: 37 miles of dead stream.
Water from the ground is normally clean because it is purified by aquifers, areas of dirt and rocks that purify the water as it moves towards the surface. But the drilling that is being done will cut through aquifers, many activists point out. The drills will introduce industrial-strength, highly poisonous lubricants into the aquifers. Further, the millions of gallons of water that are injected into the earth are full of chemicals, some of which cause such things as reproductive dysfunction in humans at one part per trillion. Activists claim that there has not been any proof that the water injected can't seep into other areas and mix with drinking water.
The waste water from fracking, after being brought to the surface, must also be dealt with. Municipal plants in New York can't handle it, so it must be brought to Pennsylvania and Ohio, both places that are nearly at capacity. Consequently, the energy companies plan to inject it deep into the ground and seal it off for future generations to deal with.
"God forbid there's an earthquake in this area," remarked Byers. He added that if one stream or lake in the area becomes contaminated, it would be nearly impossible to prevent rapid contamination of water across much larger areas of the state.
The DEC has only 17 field inspectors to oversee the entire operation of thousands of wells.
On January 25, concerned residents took their complaints to the state capital, Albany, calling for the state to put a halt to fracking. They are also pushing for passage of the "Frack Act" in Congress, which would remove a 2005 law that exempts oil and gas companies from the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Clean Drinking Water Act, and the Superfund Act.
Photo: One of Ithaca's scenic waterfalls, which residents fear could be at risk. (PW/Dan Margolis)