Trading the Watershed to Trash the Catskills

Deep Concern Over Gas Drilling in New York Counties

Aerial photographs of land
surrounding the millennium pipeline north of Sullivan County, NY show sweeping
tracts of largely unspoiled forest. They are ecologically important for several
species including neo-tropical migrant birds that travel from South America to
breeding habitats in the northern latitudes, bald eagles, and the endangered
timber rattlesnake. Some of the best soils in the state are also nearby and
dairy farms have dotted the landscape since the mid 1800s, perhaps even longer.
To the north and east of Sullivan County, the Catskill Park, established in the
late 19th century, contains large parcels of undisturbed forest. "It
is an incredibly pristine landscape," Wes Gillingham, Program Director of
Catskill Mountainkeeper told me recently.

But that
landscape is about to
change, its future in the hands of oil and gas companies that have
thousands of acres of land to drill in the Marcellus Shale. They will
soon own the mineral rights beneath the farmland and forests and
drilling will
probably begin before next summer. In the town of Hancock,
NY, which is
strategically located on the Delaware River and near the millennium
pipeline, close to 25,000 acres of land have been leased. One well, and
there will likely be
hundreds drilled in Hancock, requires between 1,500,000 to 9,000,000
gallons of
water. Heavy truck traffic, noise, air and light pollution will become
part of
everyday life.

As one observer recently noted, drilling in the Marcellus Shale
is "perhaps the largest rural land issue that we've ever been faced with in
upstate New York." And much of the concern centers on the question of water;
where it will come from, how it will be stored and treated, and what will
happen if spills or accidents contaminate the ground water or nearby rivers and
streams. The Delaware River provides water to many upstate towns in the
Catskills as well as the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Trenton. Roughly
16 million people depend on the river basin--its streams, rivers, reservoirs,
and aquifers--for their drinking water.

I visited Gillingham last
Wednesday before the first public hearing on the DEC's 809 page environmental
that sets out regulatory guidelines for drilling in New York State. That
same morning Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the largest leaseholder in the
Marcellus Shale, announced that it would forgo drilling within New York City's
watershed. The company's chief executive said in a press release that the issue
had become a "needless distraction" and that since Chesapeake is the only
leaseholder in the watershed area they are "uniquely positioned to take this
issue off the table."

And of course it is in their
interest to take the issue off the table. Unlike rural areas throughout the
country that have already been deeply impacted by natural gas drilling, from
Wyoming to Pennsylvania, the possibility that New York City's unfiltered water
might be at risk hasn't been good for the industry's image. "Why go through the
brain damage" of drilling in the watershed, Chesapeake's CEO told the New York

But residents of Sullivan County, who turned out in large numbers for
the only public hearing in the critical Delaware River Watershed weren't
exactly charmed by the company's move and are afraid that brain damage, in the
form of toxic chemicals used to fracture the shale might await them. When Scott
Rotruck, the Vice President for Corporate Development at Chesapeake made his
five minute presentation and emphatically declared that the company won't be
drilling in the NYC watershed residents cried, "what about us."

"I wish I was in the New York City watershed," Cindy Gieger,
a candidate for Town Council in Callicoon told me. "At least they have some
kind of protection. We don't have any."

For residents upstate there are
questions about how the state will deal with accidents or spills, whether flood
prone areas will be exempt from drilling, if roads and bridges are up to the
task of accommodating heavy truck traffic, and whether local economies will
really benefit. "The issue is bigger than the NYC watershed. It's as big
as the Marcellus Shale fairway," Deputy Director of Delaware Riverkeeper Tracy
Carluccio said before the hearing. There are a couple of ways to read the
Chesapeake decision: as a PR move announced on the day of the first public
hearing or as an admission that the drilling process is far too risky to tamper
with the politically sensitive New York City watershed. Imagine having to provide the city's 9 million residents with bottled water if
something went wrong. Though the company's decision has been praised by most
environmental organizations, Gillingham says it doesn't really change the
overall picture and that Chesapeake is "acting like it's trading the
watershed to trash the Catskills." Rotruck of course sees it differently.
Before the hearing got underway he told me it was purely a business decision
and that drilling in the watershed was "immaterial."

Upstate communities are hardly greeting the prospect of gas
drilling with open arms. Gieger, in her bid for Town Council, has visited
hundreds of local residents most of whom are opposed to drilling. And it makes
sense. Very few people in the rural townships own large tracts of land and
hundreds of acres are required for exploratory drilling. So they'll reap all of
the negative side effects--truck traffic, air, light and noise pollution and
possible groundwater contamination--with few if any benefits.

The idea that
farmers will be saved and dying towns revived is often viewed as nothing more
than salesmanship. Farmers who lease their land are more likely to retire (most
are in their late fifties already) than continue to work 14-hour days in a
depressed market. That may be their wish and they will do with their land as
they please, but it is folly to imagine that gas drilling will somehow save
small farmers. Farms, already in decline, will disappear. In fifteen years,
when the gas has been sucked out of the ground (it is a non-renewable resource)
there may be few farms left and who knows what the land will look like. Some of
the best soils are found in Beechwoods. A farmer there recently leased 2,500
acres to pay off his mortgage. According to an acquaintance he had a few bucks
left over.

Last year was one of the worst in recent memory for dairy
farmers. The price of milk was close to what it was in the 1970s and yet the
cost of fuel and feed continues to rise. If farmers could make a living on
their land maybe they'd hold onto it. But for now it's the money that talks and
land that was being leased for $25 an acre in some parts of the state and in
Pennsylvania four years ago is now fetching more than $6,000. "The money's the one that talks," a
longtime dairy farmer told me. "That's what worries me.

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