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The Upper Delaware’s Last Stand: Threat of Gas Drilling Earns River Most Endangered Status
Just outside of the town of Hancock, New York, on a narrow dirt road that follows the east branch of the Delaware River, you can find a harmless looking wooden stake that demarcates the future site of a natural gas well. It sits on top of a fairly steep hillside just above one of the rivers many tributaries. It is surrounded by forest, wetlands, unnamed streams, and spring fed ponds. Residents consider the spring water some of the best in the world.
Now imagine a well pad the size of a football field, perhaps even larger (some take up five acres), in place of that wooden stake; access roads for trucks and heavy machinery; hundreds of truck trips carrying supplies—fluid containing toxic chemicals to fracture the wells, water, and equipment—every day for years; and around the clock drilling. Multiply that well site by several hundred, the predicted number that may eventually populate Hancock—“The Gateway to the Upper Delaware”—and its surrounding countryside.
Because of its proximity to the river, the Millennium Pipeline, and a major highway (I-17), Hancock has been ground zero for an ongoing land rush in New York State. In fact, as of last spring more than twenty five percent of the total land area, or 25,000 acres, had been leased to a small number of gas companies. Just to the north in Deposit, one of the largest landowner leases was signed in 2008, ceding more than 45,000 acres to XTO Energy, which was recently acquired by Exxon- Mobil for $31 billion. (It was the company’s largest acquisition since it purchased Mobil a decade ago; some have opined recently that it is time for the “gas” industry to separate itself from the “oil” industry. Increasingly, they are one and the same).
Because of the threat of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale, the Upper Delaware River has been named the most endangered river in the country by American Rivers, a non-profit organization whose annual report highlights “rivers confronted by critical decisions that will determine their future.” (The Monongahelo River in Pennsylvania and West Virginia also made the list, at number nine, because of the threat of gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale.) The criteria are simple. The river must be of regional or national significance; there must be an impending decision that could radically alter the river’s ecology; and which poses a significant threat to human and natural communities.
The Upper Delaware provides drinking water to roughly 17 million people, including the cities of Philadelphia and Trenton (New York City’s drinking water reservoirs are also within the watershed). The Delaware River Basin Commission (DRBC) is in the process of deciding whether to issue permits for water withdrawal and test wells (between three and nine million gallons of water are used to fracture each well). And New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation is expected to begin issuing permits to drill in its portion of the Marcellus Shale this year, despite urgent calls for a moratorium on drilling until a national study of the environmental impacts of hydraulic fracturing is finished. The river is also home to several rare and endangered species, a popular stretch for paddlers, and highly prized by trout fishermen.
The Upper Delaware has long been recognized as a valuable natural resource. In 1978, Congress added the river to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System, which “prohibits…instream activities that would harm the river’s free-flowing condition, water quality, or outstanding resource values.” In the early 1990s, the DRBC designated the same stretch as part of a “specially protected area” subject to heightened regulatory measures. Today, they are the governing body ultimately in charge of shaping the river’s and the region’s future (the DRBC is made up of the governors of Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey, and Delaware—all of whom face severe budget shortfalls—as well as the Commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers). According to the American Rivers report, “Until a thorough study of the impacts on drinking water is completed, the Delaware River Basin Commission must refrain from issuing permits that will allow gas drilling in this watershed.” Damascus Citizens for Sustainability, a local advocacy group, is calling on the Commission to review “all test wells, exploratory operations, gas-well drilling, and/or hydraulic fracturing of any and all wells in the watershed until a thorough study of the environmental impacts is completed.”
So, the Upper Delaware is now a contested battleground. Several farmers have told me that the river may be their saving grace, the only thing that stands between them and a future industrialized landscape. “One thing we do have going for us is the Delaware River,” Greg Swartz, an organic farmer in nearby Abrahamsville, Pennsylvania told me in December. “I do have some hope, pretty far-sighted hope, that there will be additional regulations instituted to protect us.”
There are other threats, perhaps less apparent. An economically depressed region, the Upper Delaware is one of the few remaining attractions for tourists and those interested in moving to the area. Gas drilling may bring an end to that. Of course, regional poverty is also the gas industry’s biggest selling point. They say they will bring jobs to the region and provide a much-needed economic renaissance. I spent a couple of days in Hancock late last year. Much of the town’s economy seems to depend on its proximity to the interstate. There are a couple of hotels, a few shops, a McDonald's, but nothing much beyond that. Several businesses were shuttered. There’s an old surgical blade manufacturing plant on the edge of town along the railway tracks that closed more than a decade ago. It once employed 750 people. Today, the large, mostly abandoned space is rented out by a dental supply business based in Buffalo that has only twelve employees.
The prospect of gas drilling in this part of the state may also threaten the future of organic farming. It has arrived in the middle of a crippling depression for dairy farmers, most of whom have already leased their land (“We're hugely in favor of gas drilling,” Peter Gregg of the New York State Farm Bureau told me last year. “We see it as a big potential for extra income especially for dairy farmers who desperately need it. It turns out that a lot of the drilling potential happens to lay underneath our farms.”) Earlier this year, a dairy farmer in upstate New York took a rifle and killed fifty-one of his milk cows before committing suicide. Milk prices are at levels last seen in the 1970s and it is nearly impossible to make a living in this way.
And yet, the region’s future could still be shaped by a diversified agricultural economy, one that mixes dairy farming with value added products like cheese and yogurt, not to mention fresh produce. The Catskills and much of the southern tier are a ripe market for New York City restaurants and farmers’ markets (it was once called the city’s milkshed and egg basket). It’s the kind of economy that takes generations to build.
Gas drilling, on the other hand, is part of the boom and bust cycle of resource extraction. There will be a boost to the local economy. Hotels and restaurants will profit. Workers will be flown in from Western states to work two-week shifts and twelve to sixteen hour days. Most of them will go home for their two weeks off. Many local landowners will make out big (some are leasing their land for several thousand dollars an acre). But the environmental costs are potentially devastating. In the last year, the investigative web site ProPublica has documented more than a thousand cases of water contamination related to gas drilling, both from spills and underground seepage, across the country.
Gas drilling may also do in the local real estate market. A local realtor told me recently that it is difficult to sell properties that have leases on them. Not because of the market, but because of the nature of the lease: the conditions are poor and people don’t want to inherit that lease (many landowners signed before they knew the ins and outs of the game and without a lawyer versed in the language of oil and gas extraction). At the same time, people aren’t interested in buying land that may be surrounded by gas wells. “I personally think that it's going to be difficult to sell properties,” he told me. “I think it's potentially harmful to the area.” So what happens to Hancock in twenty years when the gas companies have taken their lot and moved on? What will be left? And will the Upper Delaware be spared?
The DRBC already faces a challenge from The Delaware River Keeper Network and Nockamixon Township in Pennsylvania for a decision to allow a test well in the Township without DRBC review. The Upper Delaware’s fate will be decided soon, which is why American Rivers has named the river the nation’s most endangered.