The Sullivan County Legislature unanimously banned hydro-fracking on County property and “memorialized the United States Senate and House of Representatives to amend appropriate federal laws to protect the environment and the public from risks associated with hydro-fracking.”
(During the public comment period, all but one speaker addressed the drilling items.)
To start, Alice Diehl said, “There have been six generations on Diehl farms. Our children and grandchildren want to farm. One of my grandsons is buying equipment. He has his herd started. I feel compelled because of him to come here today and let you know how we feel about our farming future. Gas drilling is a really bad idea. It might bring revenue but there are other ways. Once our aquifers are breached, that’s the end. We can’t farm with toxic water and we don’t want to move. You people are responsible for the health and well-being of our residents.”
John Kavaller, a local real estate agent and long-time businessperson in Sullivan County, described himself as a reluctant speaker. “You really are arbiters for the pubic good and you have a lot of things on your plate. Businesspeople have substantial interest in gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale and you have to consider the possible benefits and the cons. I would echo a previous speaker: we need you to hold public forums throughout Sullivan County where we can hear from our public officials, our emergency responders and they can hear from residents. That’s what we’re about in this county. I was part of the bureaucracy in New York State. I have some idea how things work. The budget determines what happens. Albany determines the budget. I believe the Department of Environmental Conservation [DEC] wants to properly handle drilling and hydro-fracking, but I have substantial concerns that the DEC, because of budget constraints, will be able to handle the situation. Once the water’s contaminated, we can’t get it back.”
Larysa Dyrszka, a member of Sullivan Area Citizens for Responsible Energy Development (SACRED) strongly supported both resolutions. A retired pediatrician, Dr. Dyrszka, expressed profound concerns about chemicals used in hydraulic fracturing as well as contamination from compressor stations. (Compressors are part of the extraction and gas preparation process.) She said, “Both will have a deleterious affect on the health of our community. We need more information and better science. The Federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has just announced it will conduct a comprehensive study to investigate potential impacts of gas drilling on water quality and public health. In addition to the resolutions before you today, I’d ask you to consider a moratorium in Sullivan County on hydro-fracking until this EPA study is completed. I also agree that we need you to make sure more science and information is presented to the public. We will be more than happy to help you set that up.”
Ayla Maloney, a local potter and proprietor of Honey Hill Pottery in the Town of Delaware, said, “I’m asking you to consider a moratorium in Sullivan County and it should be open-ended. Big corporations have invested a lot of money in drilling and the political process. Our recreation, our scenery, our peace of mind…the entire landscape will be changed forever. They want to put 10,000 wells in our area. If that happens, it will turn our area into a hideous wasteland. I’m very upset. I’m considering leaving and I love it here. I’m counting on you guys to stand up for us.”
Victoria Lesser recalled her early years in the Sullivan County area. “My childhood memories of this place are amazing. I came back and bought The North Branch Inn and restored it to its original 1860s state. I’ve been thinking for days what I want to say. I saw an enormous sign proclaiming, ‘Business. Pleasure. Life,’ and another that called the Sullivan County Catskills, ‘Mountains of opportunities.’ The question now is, ‘For whom?’ How can it be that everything I’ve invested would be considered worthless if drilling comes here. And who are the people who are thinking of leasing their lands? So many farmers. The sad thing is we’ve allowed our farmers to struggle. People who are spending $5 for a gallon of milk in New York City haven’t got a clue that our farmers are trying to exist on 1970’s milk prices. As we pledged allegiance to our flag, I thought of the public relations of gas drillers that drilling will improve our local economy. What’s really going to happen to the economy of Sullivan County? They bring in their own workers that stay by the well head. They won’t be eating french toast at my inn that’s made with brioche I get from another local business and serve with Diehl farm maple syrup. And what about the public relations about our national security? Foreign companies are investing in the Marcellus Shale.”
Ms. Lesser began reading from a Philadelphia Inquirer article she’d brought with her: “A Japanese company, Mitsui, is investing $1.4 billion in the Marcellus Shale. They’ve agreed to buy a 32.5 percent stake in the … natural gas operations of Anadarko Petroleum Corporation…. We…anticipate drilling more than 4,500 wells over the coming year…. The U.S. will be a major gas market in years ahead….” Ms. Lesser waved her sheet, “Not only are they buying our resources, but so have [Norway’s] Statoilhydro, Britain’s BP and companies in Italy. How can we sleep at night if we allow this to happen? You have to make sure we remain a mountain of opportunity for people who actually live here and love this place. Many people who are signing leases don’t even live here. One guy who recently leased lives in Port Jefferson or some place. People making big money are living in Japan and people vested here won’t be able to leave because our lives will be worthless.”
After the measures passed, a few Legislators responded to the public with comments of their own.
Leni Binder said, “We’ve been holding fora. We’re not new to this. New York is a home rule state. We don’t have the right to tell a town not to allow drilling in a town if the state tells them they can.* I urge you to go to the State and Federal levels. All of us endorse a study in this county.”
Legislator, Jodi Goodman reminded the audience of a forum that was held in Liberty, NY. “Eight hundred people nearly filled it. But we have to think, there’s also the home owner who’s for drilling. Many farmers came forward who said you have no right to tell me how poor I must be — how much I must struggle. It’s a very difficult subject. We have to control trucks coming through our county and the amount of hazardous materials coming through.”
David Sager, who has been at most of the drilling meetings held in the County said, “I brought forward the legislation to help struggling farmers but people need to separate the arguments. This is not about farming. This is not about agriculture. This is about industrialization and the environment.”
Chairman of the Legislature, Jonathan Rouis, reiterated a sentiment he expressed in his State of the County address, “The Board of Legislators can and will be the lead educator on the issue. The most important thing we can do is to develop these fora and make sure they’re well-attended. If you’re interested in helping us do that, stop by the Planning office and give your name. Keep informed and help us spread the word.”
(NB: Anyone who believes Sullivan County residents should hear from and ask questions of our County Commissioners and emergency responders should call 845-794-3000 and ask for the Planning Department. Leave your name and phone number so you can help the Legislature create informational fora in your community.)
*Despite Ms. Binder’s remarks, there’s some hope for advocates of increased local controls as a recent Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision suggests. (Because the decision was reached by an Appellate court, it might carry weight as precedent in New York.):
- Janyszeski then discussed an amicus brief filed by, among others, Nockamixon Township, The Delaware Riverkeeper and Damascus Citizens in the Supreme Court of Pennsylvania concerning the ability of local governments to control gas drilling within their borders.
- According to the Court’s ruling, “Municipalities have a unique authority and responsibility in the regulatory framework which must be maintained; they ‘give consideration to the character of the municipality, the needs of the citizens and the suitabilities and special nature of particular parts of the municipality.’” In the end, the court’s decision permits a local regulatory body to enact “traditional zoning regulations that identify which uses are permitted in different areas of the locality, even if such regulations preclude oil and gas drilling in certain zones….” However, the decision also restricted the scope of local jurisdiction, “We do not, for instance, suggest that the municipality could permit drilling in a particular district but then make that permission subject to conditions addressed to features of well operations regulated by the [Pennsylvania Oil and Gas] Act.” (Bold added for emphasis.) Essentially, when it comes to actual drilling practices and operations, the Court upheld that Pennsylvania State law will carry more force than local regulations.
- In response to the ruling, Nockamixon Township has amended old zoning ordinances in order to restrict gas and drilling operations to “light industrial and quarry zones.” Also, the Town has strictly enforced weight limits on all its bridges.
In Sullivan, as well as in other New York State towns and counties, legislators should harness the public’s growing outrage that local control of community resources is being stymied by Albany and Washington.
The New York State Associations of Towns and Counties are lobbying tools that can be used coherently and concertedly against what many view as Albany’s “over-reaching.”
For more information about protecting localities, please download a copy of “Legal and Practical Guide to Protecting Your Citizens and the Environment in the Face of Marcellus Shale Natural Gas Drilling” prepared by Kimberlea Rea Shaw at the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE) Natural Gas Development Resource Center. (The Center has numerous other resources and suggestions such as water testing which many believe should be paid for by gas extraction companies before drilling begins.)