Tuesday, April 6, 2010

The Real Cost of Hydrofracking

Seneca Lake


Considering our environment, the cost of hydrofracking needs to be thoroughly analyzed in terms of protecting our water, air, wetlands and wildlife. . . .Economically, we need to study how the benefits to a few compare to the costs of the many. On the one side, there will certainly be a number of new jobs (most of them temporary), a spurt of supporting businesses, some personal drilling bonuses and royalties. On the other side, there will be big changes in community needs for more housing, public health, schools, emergency services, roads and bridges, and volatile real estate prices. . . .

But, beyond the environmental and economic costs, there is another kind of cost that is less easy to quantify, yet nonetheless real. I’m talking about the humanities---the human costs of hydrofracking in terms of history, esthetics, ethics, community identity and self-determination---all of those connections between what an area has been, its values and history and aspirations, what it is now and what it hopes to become.  Such things are never singular or static, of course---there are always competing and changing ideas and values, but I would contend that, in a healthy, viable community, those changes occur slowly and deliberately, are informed by an area’s past, and must involve much public input and debate.

When we look at very fast community changes that occur without regard to such rooted values and considered preparations, we generally see upheaval and significant loss of local identity. Sometimes these dramatic changes happen as a result of a war or natural disaster. Most recently, New Orleans, Haiti, Baghdad come to mind. When my family moved to area in 1972, it was the Elmira flood . . . from which Elmira is still recovering.

And just as sudden loss is disruptive to a community, so is a great sudden boom or windfall. Think of gold, oil, diamonds. From the Gold Rush in the Black Hills to Diamond mines in Congo, Oil in Nigeria, Ecuador, Iraq---in human and cultural terms, you see a similar upheaval: environment degradation, disregard for local people and their historical values---accompanied by great displacement, discord, public corruption and often violent conflict.

When it comes to the prospect of the Marcellus Shale Gas Boom, the main question we need to ask is: What is the value that we as a region stand to gain versus the value of what we are likely to lose?  It might be nice believe that we can have it all, but that is almost never the case. So then, what are these values, these unpriceable essentials of our history and identity that I fear might be lost in exchange for the tens of thousands of forecasted hydrofracked gas wells in our Finger Lakes region?

1. Most obviously, the water. Our eponymous icon. We’re not called the Finger Lakes Region for nothing. Our abundant water is not only inseparable from our region’s beauty, agriculture and tourism, but of inestimable value to our wildlife and to the hundreds of thousands of people who depend on the lakes for drinking water. And while it’s true that our country needs energy, also consider this: Our Finger Lakes contain the largest reservoir of fresh water wholly within United States. (The Great Lakes being also shared with Canada). What is that worth? And---considering all the skirmishes and wars that are already being fought over fresh water---what will it be worth in future generations?

2. Agriculture. For almost 200 years, the most important economic asset of our region has been---and still is---agriculture. 100 years ago, our region was known as the “berry capital of the world.” in 2009, its national rank was: 2nd in apples, 3rd in dairy products, 3rd in grapes, 3rd in wine, and it is one of the nation’s fastest growing areas of organic agriculture as well. A 2001 Agricultural Economic Development Plan prepared by Cornell Cooperative Extension and the Broome County Department of Planning put it this way:  Income from agriculture goes further than other sectors in helping the economy. Agriculture produces much higher economic multipliers than any other sector of the Broome County economy.  Farmland is a valuable future resource for the County in providing for a healthy and plentiful local supply of food products and generating new sources of farm income. Urban residents of the County, as well as visitors, are seeking locally grown fresh fruits, vegetables and flowers, both organic and non-organic.

3. Tourism.  Hand in hand with the plentiful water and agriculture, tourism has long with an essential characteristic of our region. From steamboats on the lakes and spas in the 19th Century, to Watkins Glen, Corning and Hammondsport in the early 20th C. to the Windmill and Wine Trail in the 21st. . . . The Cornell/Broome County points out the integral relationship between tourism and agriculture. Farms create rural character and attract tourism.

Farms contribute to Broome County's rural character and protect open spaces essential to the quality of life for both permanent and seasonal residents. Any number of surveys of rural residents and second-home dwellers indicate the primary reasons people live in such areas have to do with their appreciation of the natural resources and open spaces offered, but the anecdotal evidence is perhaps even stronger and local tourism brochures provide examples. They include references not only to the County's recreational opportunities but also its "scenic beauty." They also speak of the "quiet valleys," "enchanting villages" and quiet country settings" throughout the County as attractive features for visitors. And as much as that is true for neighboring Broome County, it is all the more true for the Finger Lakes Region.

In specific reference to the Finger Lakes, the Porsche Club of America says this about us:
Happiness is defined as the congruence of well-being and satisfaction. Driving through the Finger Lakes Region of New York State can be the epitome of happiness, especially if you happen to be driving a Porsche!
And, in 2009, Sherman Travel‘s ranked the Finger Lakes as “the #1 Lakeside Resort Destination in the World!”  Not Lake Tahoe, Lake Lucerne, Lake Como or Lake Louise, but our Finger Lakes! What is that worth? Clearly, in last decade or so, the influx of Mennonites has also augmented the region’s agriculture and tourism with their prolific farms, flowers, crafts and unique charm.

4. Education and Progressive Thought.  These characteristics of clean water, agriculture and tourism may occasionally be at odds, but they are also symbiotic. There is a harmony and and evolution of these assets, which act together to maintain a healthy and vibrant continuity in our region. That harmony also stems from our region’s emphasis on quality education, progressive social history and religious tolerance.

Consider the extraordinary availability of higher education in our region: Cornell, Rochester, RIT, Eastman School of Music, Syracuse; the heart of the SUNY system: Geneseo, Binghamton, Alfred, Brockport, Cortland and Oneonta; the array of quality small private colleges: Colgate, Hamilton, Hobart/ William Smith, Ithaca, Elmira, Keuka, Wells, LeMoyne, St. John Fisher, Nazareth; the excellent Community Colleges: Corning, FLCC, Cayuga, Onondaga, Tompkins Cortland, Monroe. . . .For our area’s population and rural character, these institutions offer an inestimable wealth, and one that has been closely aligned with our region’s equally amazing history of progressive and independent thinkers.

In 1865, Ezra Cornell wrote: "I would found an institution where any person can find instruction in any study." And such has also been the openness toward social progress: Women’s Rights leaders like Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Elizabeth Blackwell; Abolitionists and leaders of the Underground Railroad like Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass; great progressive orators like Douglass, Robert Ingersoll and Mark Twain. Too often Mark Twain is only remembered for Tom Sawyer, and less for Pudd’nhead Wilson, “The War Prayer,” and the Anti-Imperialist League.
I am said to be a revolutionist in my sympathies, by birth, by breeding and by principle. I am always on the side of the revolutionists, because there never was a revolution unless there were some oppressive and intolerable conditions against which to revolt. ---Mark Twain
This tradition of education and progressive thought in the humanities is as much a part of the richness of our region as are the precious lakes. What is that worth compared to millions of cubic feet of gas? I couldn’t begin to say.

5. The Living Nature of the Finger Lakes. Nor do I know how to figure the worth of the forests and wildlife in our region. Wildlife for hunting and fishing or just as food for the soul. How would one put a price on it? Per fish? Per fox? Per great blue heron? I don’t know. Any more than with clean air or starry nights. I can’t quantify the worth of a starry night, but that doesn’t make it worthless.

Last Tuesday (3/29), I picked up a copy of the Elmira STAR-GAZETTE.  Its main headline said: COUNTY EXEC OUTLINES ALTERED LANDFILL PACT, which was about the importation of fracking waste from Pennsylvania to be dumped into the Chemung County Landfill. Right under that, the sub-headline read: OPENING DAY FOR TROUT FISHING IS THURSDAY --- CATHARINE CREEK REMAINS A LURE.  Talk about an unviable juxtaposition!  No, we won’t be able to have it both ways. Water and agriculture and wine and tourism, yes. But, like oil and water, fracking waste and trout do not mix.

A year ago, our Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes sent a FOIL request to DEC asking for a list of toxic chemicals that DEC had on record associated with any planned use of fracking fluid additives in our five-county region. Because there had been much talk that such information was proprietary, we did not have high expectations, yet, to our surprise, we received a list of 48 products along with the Material Safety Data Sheet for each.  When I analyzed this information, I discovered that 34 of these products contained
highly-hazardous chemicals. And, of those, 21 were known to be toxic to aquatic environments, and 11 others had yet to be tested for environmental toxicity at all).

That is hardly heartening for the trout. How compatible will these products be with trout? Or perch? Or us?  The industry likes to point out that these additives only make up one-half of one percent of the fracking fluid, and that many of these chemicals are included in everyday products like antifreeze and bathroom cleanser.  But, if you consider that, in Pennsylvania, each well uses 5.5 million gals. of fracking fluid, then that “only one-half of one percent” amounts to 27,500 gals. per well.  And if, as Prof. Tony Ingraffea estimates, it is likely that as many as 40,000 such wells will be drilled in our seven counties in Western NY, that would amount to 1.1 billion gals. of noxious chemicals that would be added to our environment. What will that mean for all our aquatic life? For the 500,000 people who currently depend on the Finger Lakes for their drinking water? For our region’s reputation as a clean, welcoming environment? Would you want to buy milk and apples for your family that came from farms surrounded by fracking fluid ponds and deisel-spewing well pads?  Or if you were a tourist, would you want to be driving on torn up roads behind endless lines of fracking trucks? Through noisy industrial zones one after another? Does that sound like a world class tourist destination to you?  Or if you were a doctor or professor or other professional, would such a place be #1 on your list of desirable places you’d like to settle? Or if you wanted to build you retirement dream home, wouldn’t you to be sure of the safety of your drinking water, the secure value of your investment?  Or if you wanted to start a winery or an organic farm, wouldn’t you want to dig in somewhere where the local populace and powers-that-be had a vision more compatible with your own?

In short, we can strive to remain a first class area for all these values that we, as a region, have traditionally cherished.  Or we can be a first class producer of natural gas.

But we cannot be both.

To know this, we can look to Cleburne or DISH Texas. We can look to Garfield County, Colorado. We can look to the Louisiana coast that used to call itself “Fisherman’s Paradise” and is now God’s own junkyard for the gas and oil industry, not a fishing boat or tourist in sight. We can look across our southern border to Pennsylvania and wonder why they are so desperate to send their fracking waste to us. Or we can just look around our Finger Lakes Region and think about what it’s worth and what losing it would really mean. To me that’s the best way to do a true cost analysis of hydrofracking.

Steve Coffman
Dundee, New York

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