Fracking — formally known as high volume hydraulic fracturing — involves injecting large amounts of sand, water and chemicals deep underground at high pressures to extract natural gas from rock formations.
Cuomo, a Democrat, has faced strident opposition from his party’s left and conservation groups, who claim fracking is an environmental disaster in the making, as well as pressure from the drilling industry and landowners, who insist it is a money-making boon to the state.
Now, a leaked report by the state’s Health Department has stirred fresh controversy over the issue. The document, prepared early last year and obtained by the New York Times and other news organizations, shows that fracking can be performed safely if adequate precautions are taken.
The report outlines potential health risks associated with fracking in New York, including possible exposure to the chemicals used in the process, potential contamination of drinking water sources and health impacts from naturally occurring radium that could be brought to the surface through the gas drilling procedure.
It concludes that in each instance, proper safety measures that would be required by the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) would minimize any potential harm and reduce risks.
The report, written in February 2012, says “significant adverse impacts on human health are not expected from routine HVHF (hydrofracking) operations.”
It also advises against trying to do a site specific quantitative risk assessment of fracking, saying there are too many variables and that too many assumptions would have to be made.
A spokeswoman for the DEC said the report is “outdated,” and that no conclusions should be drawn.
Not surprisingly, the natural gas industry maintains the report backs up their claims that fracking can and should be allowed.
The executive director of the New York State Petroleum Council, Karen Moreau, released a statement in reaction to the document, saying, “Today’s news reports that the New York State Health Department found in an analysis it prepared early last year that hydraulic fracturing could be conducted safely in New York should come as no surprise to anyone who has watched this industry grow and prosper across the United States.
“In fact, these reports confirm what has been clear for some time now: Sensible regulations can ensure safe natural gas development will protect land, water and public health while providing tens of thousands of good jobs throughout the Marcellus Shale,” she continued.
“We know some will try to play politics with this news; frankly that has been the case for years now. We have seen in recent days what happens when government leaders put politics before the people. We have also seen leaders from both parties here in New York denounce that kind of decision making. We hope and trust they will apply the same standard to hydraulic fracturing.”
Environmental groups, on the other hand, say the report is merely a justification of why the administration didn’t do a more rigorous study.
“It was from early last year and it fits with the talking points from the government at that time, that everything is fine, there is no health impact and they have it completely under control,” Katherine Nadeau, the water and natural resources program director at Environmental Advocates of New York, tells MintPress.
“This document was drafted before the state engaged health experts in other states, and this is certainly not any indication that New York should proceed with fracking,” she continues. “Just by reading it, there is no analysis of the health impact that supports the conclusion that fracking is safe.”
In fact, says Nadeau, there are a number of risks. “Upstate New York, where they are targeting the drilling, relies on wells and well water, and that water is at risk from major industrial activity like this, especially in an industry that plays hard and fast with the rules.
“There are also concerns about the damage to the air from truck traffic and diesel generators,” she adds. “And if there are any spills, toxic contamination can affect health.”
Out of sight
Last September, Nadeau’s groups submitted a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to the Cuomo administration for any studies of the health impact of fracking that had been conducted. So far, it has not received anything.
“Cuomo is keeping it all secret and out of the public eye,” she says. “We have not been invited to participate in evaluating it in any way.”
Asked in mid-December about the health studies, Cuomo said the experts were “looking at the experiences of other states in the country where this has been done … Reports of possible health consequences, whether or not it’s true, what remediation was done, what protections were taken.”
When asked about the state’s ongoing review of fracking on Wednesday, Cuomo said there’s “nothing new.”
Meanwhile, opinion polls find that the public is sharply divided over the issue, with the stakes high for both sides.
An editorial in the Wall Street Journal blasted the administration’s delay in implementing fracking, suggesting that that Cuomo was holding the upstate economy “hostage” in order to appease anti-fracking advocates.
“We can’t sacrifice our long term health and water supply for short term questionable economic gain,” argues Nadeau of Environmental Advocates.
“It is a matter of priorities and protecting our resources for generations to come.”