Cuomo Fracks New York State with Irony and Disassociative Policy Disease

(BREAKING NEWS: With so many promising initiatives outlined by the Governor in his State of the State Address, it may seem like base cavilling to focus on a single issue like “fracking,” but my underlying assumption is that high-volume, high-pressure hydraulic fracturing is not the “problem.” It is a symptom of the problem and it serves quite nicely to illustrate a corollary: “If you partner with industry (especially the gas extraction industry) you will be forced to engage in tortured reasoning, mad dashes left and right and a convoluted persecution of the laws that govern public Agencies. (The State Administrative Procedures Act ((SAPA), for instance, figures heavily in an intent to sue notice prepared by David and Helen Slottje, founding attorneys at Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc. Last night, as this Breathing article was getting final edits, the Slottjes wrote, “…we will turn a version of this [notice] into a formal petition to the State detailing why the regs and the draft SGEIS are illegal, demanding that the regs and the draft SGEIS be withdrawn, and placing the State on notice that suit will be brought if the demand is not honored.”)


 

(BREAKING NEWS:  With so many promising initiatives outlined by the Governor in his State of the State Address,  it may seem like base cavilling to focus on a single issue like “fracking,” but my underlying assumption is that high-volume, high-pressure hydraulic fracturing is not the “problem.”   It is a symptom of the problem and it serves quite nicely to illustrate a corollary:  “If you partner with industry (especially the gas extraction industry) you will be forced to engage in tortured reasoning,  mad dashes left and right and a convoluted persecution of the laws that govern public Agencies.  (The  State Administrative Procedures Act ((SAPA), for instance,  figures heavily in an intent to sue notice prepared by David and Helen Slottje,  founding attorneys at Community Environmental Defense Council, Inc.  Last night, as this Breathing article was getting final edits,  the Slottjes wrote,  “…we will turn a version of this  [notice] into a formal petition to the State detailing why the regs and the draft SGEIS are illegal, demanding that the regs and the draft SGEIS be withdrawn, and placing the State on notice that suit will be brought if the demand is not honored.”)

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First, whether you are a pro-fracking or pro-Moratorium New Yorker,  when you searched the text of Governor Cuomo’s  State of the State Address for some variation of “frac,”  “fractured,”  “frack,”  or “frackturing,”  you were immediately rewarded with several instances of  “FRAC.”   Armed with a fresh cup of coffee or some sedative,  you prepared to delve into the convoluted shoals that are Cuomo’s  gas extraction policy.

And that’s where you encountered the first multi-layered irony.  During the past month, activists sent New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC)  more than 200,000 comments about the Agency’s  regs,   draft SGEIS,  its review process and lack of adherence to State law.  Many of those comments were submitted “under protest” and came on the heels of more than 60,000 submitted during the last round of dSGEIS comments.  But the “FRAC” in the Governor’s speech didn’t refer to gas, extraction or hydraulics.  It’s the Food Research and Action Center which studies accessibility to “affordable fresh fruits and vegetables” and the impact of that accessibility on health.  It is a notable initiative but kind of moot if New York’s  fertile foodsheds are fracked.

You settled in a little deeper and began to review the State of the State Address category-by-category.

Under the broad heading of “Economic Development,” Governor Cuomo  touted Tax-Free Hot Spots, Academics and Unemployment Insurance.  He announced, “The Adirondack Challenge, a national rafting and paddling competition…[that] will  focus the world’s attention on the unparalleled natural beauty and recreational opportunities of the Adirondacks to attract tourists to Upstate New York.”

That’s lovely for the Adirondack and Catskill Parks which are protected from fracking by the NYS Constitution, but how will tourists reach those oases if not via a scenic gas drilling byway?   Additionally, as Cuomo  plots to protect some areas of New York State as more worthy of conservation than others, the Adirondack Mountain Club has reminded him, “It is clear from Article XIV, section (3)(1) of the Constitution that the state cannot enter into a lease with any private corporation for the extraction of natural gas from any state forest or reforestation area located in the counties of Greene, Ulster, Sullivan, or Delaware counties.”

Uh oh.

The Governor spoke to the Economy of Tomorrow and laid out a plan to Make New York the Leader in the Clean Tech Economy. He pledged himself to the creation of a workforce capable of meeting the new demands of his 21st century model.

And he drew a special bead on Upstate Economic Development.  He connected the dots between poverty, food deprivation and a failure to thrive. He outlined a plan to bolster our farms and families by strengthening Farm to School Programs. (This is of especial importance to Sullivan County, NY which a recent Robert Woods Johnson Foundation report placed next to last for health factors of all New York State counties.)

The particular attention Cuomo paid to Upstate Economic Development may have set some heads to shaking. On one hand, he lauded the value of Upstate water and  soil resources – citing to them and our foodsheds as indispensable pieces of NY’s economic engine — while,  on the other,  his  SGEIS proposes to protect the NYC and Syracuse watersheds  and leave the Upper Delaware River Basin (and its organic farmers) to the mercy of inadequate setbacks. (Sec.  7.1.5:  Revised Draft SGEIS 2011,  page 7-55.)

For instance,

… as stated in sub-section 7.1.3, the Department proposes that for at least two years the surface disturbance associated with high-volume hydraulic fracturing, including well pad and associated road construction and operation, be prohibited within 500 feet of primary aquifers.

And,

… uncovered pits or open surface impoundments that could contain flowback water … are subject to a 300-foot separation distance from water wells under Appendix 5-B of the State Sanitary Code.  Flowback water tanks and additive containers … which require a 100-foot setback from water wells.  Handling and mixing of hydraulic fracturing additives onsite…requires a 150-foot distance from water wells.  The Department proposes that it will not issue well permits for high-volume hydraulic fracturing within 500 feet of a private water well or domestic-supply spring, unless waived by the landowner.

If those  “set-back mitigations” strike you as inadequate, then add this nugget to the sludge on your plate:  gas wells in New York State will be permitted within 150 feet of schools.

That’s right.  As Cuomo  outlined a broad range of education improvements with optimistic headings like,  more learning time,  full-time pre-k programs for highest needs students, better teachers, principals and evaluation systems — all excellent proposals —  his SGEIS will allow gas wells to be drilled within 150 feet of those excellent teachers, students, playgrounds, programs and classrooms.

No doubt,  Disassociative Policy Disorder strikes again.

Fighting Hunger in New York

Governor Cuomo has good reasons for envisioning a future-New York where our families are well-nourished by the bounty of our own organic farms. (New York farmers regularly lead the nation in produce donated to food banks and food pantries.  Just sayin’.)

In 2006,  NYS was home to “580 certified organic farms  with 68,864 acres in production.  In addition, there were more than 100 organic processors doing business in the State…”

Only two years later, the US Department of Agriculture reported that  NYS had grown to  827 organic farms and was ranked fourth in the nation as a result.   More,   NYS was second in the country with  319  organic dairy farms;  second to Wisconsin with 99 organic beef farms  and fifth for organic vegetable and melon farms with 190.  (Our $60.2 million dollars in organic milk sales for 2008 placed us fifth in the nation.)

The Governor even cited to  Bay Shore’s Farm to School Project, “Edible EastEnd, an innovative collaboration between Long Island’s Bay Shore Union Free School District, the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets and Office of General Services, and Long Island potato farmers to increase service of Long Island potatoes in Long Island Schools)…”

And he pledged to create a Statewide Anti-Hunger Task Force with one goal being to increase “the use of New York farm products and healthy foods in anti-hunger programs.”

Yes, while painting a rosy picture of New York State’s schoolchildren being educated for the 21st century in a state fueled by sustainable industries and locally-grown food,  Cuomo’s SGEIS has determined that  many New York  schools and much of our vast foodshed will be left vulnerable to the dangers of crazily inadequate setbacks.

Worse, even if the setbacks seem a dandy solution to you, consider that you and the Governor have overlooked another threat to foodsheds in Upstate New York and the Upper Delaware River Basin:  migrating air pollution from the Hancock compressor,  the Millennium Pipeline and other components of the extraction industry.

Fingers crossed that if airborne contaminants endanger the Organic status of local Upstate NY farms, Vermont won’t charge much to  stock NY’s  school lunch programs.

Human Health

In addition to educating our children and feeding them more and healthier local food,  the Gov is determined that New York will Set the “Gold Standard” for Patient Care.

  • “The best way to improve the health of New Yorkers and to lower health care cost is to avoid preventable illness and the health care interventions they require,” he said.

He even devoted 7.5 typewritten pages to sepsis, “An overwhelming immune and inflammatory response to infection.”  He laid out an entire plan of attack to improve preventative care and to combat nosocomial infections. He was inventive and passionate.

He skipped over the fact that his SGEIS has been roundly decried by doctors, medical societies, nurses and epidemiologists for ignoring the cumulative impacts of gas extraction on human health.

He forgot to mention the plethora of reports coming in from the frontlines of Gasland about endocrine disruptions, immune system dysfunction and leukemia.

He ignored that gas extraction and production companies are exempt from revealing the toxins they use in their processes and that doctors are prohibited from telling injured patients the nature of the gas production toxins that have harmed them.

However, our governor made it clear that he intends to be a juggernaut when it comes to ensuring a fair Public Safety Policy that will open like a protective umbrella over all our heads.  He spoke about gun violence and ended with this,  “Some weapons are so dangerous and some ammunition devices so lethal that we simply cannot afford to continue selling them in our state.”

Yes, Governor Cuomo,  but perhaps there are industries and devices “so lethal that we simply cannot afford”  to welcome them into our communities, either.

I won’t belabor the Governor’s insistence that New York State must improve its reputation for cloaked dealings with lobbyists because one sentence drove all his remonstrations from my head,  “A public database will provide the fullest disclosure of lobbyist and other meetings with state officials in the country.”

Then why, oh why,  Governor Cuomo, did activists have to labor so hard to expose the fact that  Independent Oil and Gas Association  (industry lobbyist) worked hand-in-hand with  NY’s Department of Environmental Conservation to write our State’s gas extraction regulations?

The Governor also outlined a number of new Public Safety initiatives in response to the devastation wrought in New York State by Hurricane Sandy.  He described the NYS 2100 Commission and the importance of building “resiliency” into our “planning, protection and development approaches…”  He vowed to “reduce the emissions that contribute to our changing climate,”  to “increase alternative local renewable power sources,”  and to “provide assistance to property owners to mitigate or sell properties in vulnerable areas.”

Although the Gov is referring to homes damaged or obliterated by Hurricane Sandy,  the door he opens is intriguing.  Will those whose properties are damaged or destroyed by their neighbors’ fracking also be considered “vulnerable?”  Will those property owners also be helped to relocate?  Will they be helped to find a new and better quality of life? Will our organic farmers be rewarded with new  sources of clean water and soil?

And when Cuomo says that,  “Much of New York’s infrastructure is aging and susceptible to damage from extreme weather events or seismic threats,”  is he planning to replace bridges,  roads, and neighborhoods impacted by frack-created earthquakes?

Or when he admits that, “there are miles of aging [ gas] pipeline[s] that are prone to leakage and vulnerable to storm damage (and ground movement) [in New York State],”   does he intend to hire hundreds of new DEC field agents to police, test and enforce remediation of those leaks?  Or will citizens be detailed to stand on either side of the pipes to hold them in place as they rock to the beat of seismic drums?

And when he says we need to “strengthen our wastewater infrastructure” because, “Flooding and storm surges from Lee, Irene, and Sandy resulted in hundreds of millions of dollars of damage to waste water treatment plants and the release of hundreds of millions of gallons of raw and undertreated sewage,”  is he considering just how toxic the stew would be with Marcellus Shale’s radioactive materials added to the mix?

Or does he believe that his newly-minted  World-Class Emergency Response Network —  like All the King’s Horses and All the King’s Men —   will simply put New York  back together again after the extraction industry has bedded, fracked us, and moved on?

 

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Additional Links, Resources and Citations:

“Ecosystem resilience is the capacity of an ecosystem to tolerate disturbance without collapsing into a qualitatively different state that is controlled by a different set of processes. A resilient ecosystem can withstand shocks and rebuild itself when necessary. Resilience in social systems has the added capacity of humans to anticipate and plan for the future. Humans are part of the natural world. We depend on ecological systems for our survival and we continuously impact the ecosystems in which we live from the local to global scale. Resilience is a property of these linked social-ecological systems (SES). “Resilience” as applied to ecosystems, or to integrated systems of people and the natural environment, has three defining characteristics:

• The amount of change the system can undergo and still retain the same controls on function and structure
• The degree to which the system is capable of self-organization
• The ability to build and increase the capacity for learning and adaptation”

Source: The Resilience Alliance Website

 

As part of  Governor Cuomo’s  plan to “Harden Our Utilities,”  he wants the following NYS Public Service Commission (PSC) recommendations adopted as soon as possible.  It sounds dandy, actually.  Too bad  these initiatives don’t extend to the Department of Environmental Conservation or the gas extractors that Agency is mandated  to regulate.

  • The PSC will be statutorily authorized to levy administrative penalties against each utility for violations of PSC orders and regulations or upon a finding that such utility has failed to provide safe and adequate service under a “reasonable business” standard (comparable to the prudence standard). The size of the potential penalties will be increased, and provisions will be adopted to ensure that the penalties are paid out of shareholder capital and not passed on to ratepayers.
  • The PSC will be authorized to issue an order that directs a utility to comply with recommendations made pursuant to management and operations audits.
  • The PSC will recommence operational audits at least every five years as currently required under the Public Service Law.
  • To implement the strengthened auditing functions of the PSC, consideration will be given to having a dedicated auditing unit to help ensure that the PSC is well-situated to fully exercise its statutory authority and perform both management and operational audits.
  • Consideration will also be given to creating a dedicated unit for investigating and enforcing utility compliance with PSC orders and recommendations and with utility tariffs.
  • Statutory changes should be considered to explicitly authorize the PSC to formally review the performance of each of the Investor-Owned Utilities to provide safe and adequate service, and order appropriate relief including divestiture of some or all of a utility’s assets, subject to both due process standards and the need for continuity of service. To ensure compliance with the recommendations put forth by the PSC after a review, the Commission also recommends the clear establishment of the PSC’s authority to revoke the Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.
  • DPS staffing and budgetary levels will be reviewed to ensure they are sufficient to carry out the newly-designed core functions of the PSC, and procedures should be reviewed to ensure cross-training of the existing workforce, implementation of performance management standards and technology upgrades. Given the substantial retirements at DPS in recent years, the agency currently is not staffed to the level authorized in the FY 2012-13 budget of 524 full-time employees (FTE). Based upon the additional mandates that the Commission recommends, the DPS staffing authorization will be maintained in the FY 2013-14 budget and DPS will recruit and hire up to the 524 FTE allotment to assist in implementation and enforcement of the new mandates.
  • Similar to Sarbanes Oxley where CEOs need to certify the validity of their financial statements, consideration will be given to requiring senior officers of each utility to annually certify to the PSC that the utility is acting in compliance with all applicable State laws, rules, regulations, orders, and procedures, including the statutory requirement to provide safe and adequate service.
  • All appointees to the PSC will have demonstrated competence in some aspect of utility regulation as well as a concern for the public well-being.

Oscar Night: Open Letter to President Obama


Dear Readers:  Please  celebrate having two of The Upper Delaware River Valley’s sons nominated for  Academy awards:   Josh Fox for “Gasland” and Mark Ruffalo for  “The Kids Are All Right.”

At this auspicious time in world history, send your own letter about Hydraulic Fracturing  to President Obama.   (Many thanks to Marcia Nehemiah for sending both  this link and one for today’s NY Times report on hydraulic fracturing to  The Upper Delaware Network.)

*   *   *   *  *

Dear President Obama,

While you watch the Oscars tonight, you will see clips from “Gasland.”  Please watch them carefully.  The people in the movie are my brothers and sisters.

The waters of the Delaware River Valley   meet the thirsts of 17+ million people and they  are under threat.  (Lower Valley,  Upper Valley)

I thought the Gulf, Flower Mound,  Dimock, PA and scores of others  would be sufficient to show the careless disregard with which gas extractors ply their dangerous trade.  I was wrong.

Gas extracted from my valley does not represent energy independence:  much of it will ship to BP,  Norway, and others.

“Big Coal”  lied to us years ago and its  agenda was shoved down our throats with the connivance of our leaders and representatives.  Pennsylvania and  New York are no better off  — and are probably worse —  for that sad chapter in our histories.

“Big Energy?”  “Clean Gas?”  Just more “Big Coal.”

How many more people have to sicken?   How many more fields & forest lands  have to be destroyed?   (Please support a National Moratorium on Hydraulic Fracturing!)

How many more neighborhoods, livelihoods, properties have to be wasted by 600+ undisclosed  “proprietary” chemicals? (Please support the Frac Act!)

There comes a point when ambition and greed are just unseemly, Mr. President.  And as we saw and voted in 2008,  ignorance of the cost of something is not an excuse for supporting it.  (The Iraq War.)

Please!  Watch the movie.  No matter what control you believe your opponents wield,  it’s nothing to the power being generated by the  flora and fauna in my valley or the risk they face.

Sincerely,

Liz Bucar

Breathing Is Political

Gas Drilling, Conflict of Interests and Lobbying


Since publishing  Breathing’s March 20, 2010 coverage of  the Town of Delaware’s  Board meeting,  I’ve been fielding questions about local public officials’ potential conflicts of interests.  Essentially,  residents on both sides of the River are worried that some local public officials are either blocking or supporting local zoning changes and/or Board resolutions because those officials  have leased,  or are considering leasing,  their own gas mineral rights.

Residents and taxpayers who have raised the issue of conflicts of interest believe they are being  disenfranchised by representatives who are supporting or opposing  public policy for the benefit of themselves and drilling interests rather than in protection of  the public’s health and welfare.

As a result, I’ve asked two attorneys whether or not New York State’s  county, town, zoning and planning board members who have leased or are considering leasing their gas mineral rights should recuse themselves from not only voting on drilling issues but from participating in their Boards’ discussions of  gas drilling  issues.  In response, both attorneys  strongly recommended that  the public should attend those local board meetings and ask each board member, on the record, to clarify the leased  status of their and their family’s  real property holdings.

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In an  April 2, 2008 press release,  the Franklin County, NY District Attorney made an announcement which may apply to our local  public officials who have signed gas leases:

“Over the past three months the Franklin County District Attorney’s Office has been examining allegations of certain improprieties including self-dealing, conflicts of interest and violations of statutes on the part of various local elected officials in Franklin County.

The recently disclosed unethical conduct by our state’s highest elected official has heightened the need for a closer review of all available ethical safeguards in order to reestablish and maintain the Public’s confidence in our elected officials.

This week, copies of General Municipal Law, Chapter 24, Article 18, Section 805-a and 806, are being sent to all Town, Village, School District and other regulatory boards in Franklin County in an effort to fully apprise elected officials of the prohibited conflicts of interest of Municipal Officers and their employees. Each governing body is also being urged to adopt and/or update their respective Code of Ethics and to consider working with the Franklin County Legislature to adopt a standard code throughout the County.

Our investigation has revealed several contracts, easements, lease option agreements, cooperation memoranda and other types of documents which disclose relationships existing between elected officials and certain third parties in Franklin County (as well as other elected officials in other Counties) which, when allegedly coupled with certain decision making and board action, may be in violation of General Municipal Law (GML) 805-a(1)(c) and (1)(d). If such violations have occurred, these public officials may also be in violation of Penal Law Section 195.00, Official Misconduct and/or Penal Law Section 200, (Bribery Involving Public Servants and related offenses). (Bold added for emphasis.)

We are presently urging all elected officials to examine any and all employment relationships, contracts, contractual arraignments, agreements, leases, easements, payments, agreements for future services, fees, compensation, financial arraignments and other related matters which would fall under the prohibitions of GML 805-a(1)(c) and (1)(d) and to consider as required by law, full disclosure to the public and recusal from voting or participation in legislative decisions in any events where a public official has or may have a financial interest. (1992 N.Y. Op. (Inf.) Att’y Gen. 31) (Bold added for emphasis.)

Through these proactive steps and full compliance with the law, we can attempt to restore and maintain the public’s confidence in our elected officials.  The New York State Attorney General’s Office, in the informal opinion cited above specifically stated, “even the appearance of impropriety must be avoided in order to maintain public confidence in government.”

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According to New York State’s  Commission on Public Integrity:  “Lobbying” or “Lobbying activities” on the local level are defined as any attempt to influence the passage or defeat of any local law, ordinance, resolution or regulation by any municipality or subdivision thereof or adoption or rejection of any rule, regulation, or resolution having the force and effect of local law, ordinance, resolution or regulation or any rate making proceeding by any municipality or subdivision thereof.”

Breathing Note:  Commonsense dictates that if a member —  or the family of a member  —  of one of our local county, town, zoning and/or planning boards has leased mineral rights to a drilling company, that member will benefit from either “the passage or defeat of any local law, ordinance, resolution…”  which also  benefits gas drilling interests.  Further, commonsense dictates that a member who has leased his or her property to gas drilling interests and then supports or opposes local policy for the benefit of gas drilling interests  may be, effectively or apparently,  functioning as a lobbyist for those drilling interests rather than as an advocate for  the public’s interest.

Sections 805-a and 806 of New York State’s General Municipal Law are the most usually-cited statutes governing official conflicts of interest. (Section 806 explains the parameters of local codes of ethics and can be read in full here.)

Section 805-a reads:

  • 1. No municipal officer or employee shall:
  • a. directly or indirectly, solicit any gift, or accept or receive any gift having a value of seventy-five dollars or more, whether in the form of money, service, loan, travel, entertainment,  hospitality, thing or promise, or in any other form, under circumstances in which it could reasonably be inferred that the gift was intended to influence him, or could reasonably be expected to influence him, in the performance of his official duties or was intended as a reward for any official action on his part;
  • b. disclose confidential information acquired by him in the course of his official duties or use such information to further his personal interests;
  • c. receive, or enter into any agreement, express or implied, for compensation for services to be rendered in relation to any matter before any municipal agency of which he is an officer, member or employee or of any municipal agency over which he has jurisdiction or to which he has the power to appoint any member, officer or employee; or
  • d. receive, or enter into any agreement, express or implied, for compensation for services to be rendered in relation to any matter before any agency of his municipality, whereby his compensation is to be dependent or contingent upon any action by such agency with respect to such matter, provided that this paragraph shall not prohibit the fixing at any time of fees based upon the reasonable value of the services rendered.
  • 2. In addition to any penalty contained in any other provision of law, any person who shall knowingly and intentionally violate this section may be fined, suspended or removed from office or employment in the manner provided by law.

Over the years, Attorney Generals in New York State  have issued opinions which may be salient to local concerns that public officials with gas drilling conflicts are not  recusing themselves  from either voting or  discussing drilling  issues that come before them.  Several of those Attorney General Opinions are included below:

  • In Opinion 2002-9  re  Conflict of Interests :

“…if a member of a village’s Board of Trustees, who owns property within the Business Improvement District of the village, has a substantial direct personal interest in the outcome of the Board of Trustees’ vote on the Business Improvement District’s annual budget, recusal from participating in the Board of Trustees’  deliberations and voting on the Business Improvement District’s annual budget is the appropriate course of action.”

“As a general matter, recusal  would be required if the facts and circumstances suggest that the subject trustee has a substantial, personal interest in the outcome of the BID budget vote.  Even the appearance of such an interest would require recusal, in order to maintain public confidence in  government.” (Breathing Note:  If a public official’s property has been leased and will be affected by proposed legislation or changes in legislation, would the same recusal requirement exist?)  (Bold added for emphasis.)

  • In Opinion 96-17  re:  Section 806:

“Public officers have responsibility to exercise their official duties solely in the public interest.  1985 Op Atty Gen (Inf) 101.  They should avoid circumstances which compromise their ability to make impartial judgments and must avoid the appearance of impropriety in order to maintain public confidence in government.”

  • In Opinion 96-27  re:  Section 806:

“Public officials should not, however, accept positions or become involved in outside activities which conflict with their official duties.  Every local government is required to promulgate a code of ethics providing standards for officers and employees with respect to disclosure of interest in legislation before the local governing body, holding of investments in conflict with official duties….”

  • In Opinion 99-42  re Section 806:

“A member of a board of assessment review who owns property before the board for review is obligated to recuse himself from participating in board proceedings with respect to that property to preserve the validity of action taken by the board and maintain public confidence in the integrity of government.”  (Breathing Note:  If a public official’s property has been leased and will be affected by proposed legislation or changes in legislation, would the same recusal requirement exist?)

  • In Opinion 95-2  re:  members with conflict of interests recusing  themselves from all Board deliberations “with respect to that matter or applications”:

“We have found that members of local bodies, including planning boards, with conflicts of interests in a particular application or matter before the body, should recuse themselves from taking any actions with respect to that matter or application.  Op Atty Gen (Inf) No. 9-38; 1988 Op Atty Gen (Inf) 12, 124; 1988 Op Atty Gen (Inf) 115, 117.  We have stated that members with conflicts of interests must recuse themselves from participating in any deliberations or votes concerning the application creating the conflict. Op Atty Gen (Inf)  No. 90-38.   The board member’s participation in deliberations has the potential to influence other board members who will exercise a vote with respect to the matter in question.  Further, we believe that a board member with a conflict of interests should not sit with his or her fellow board members during the deliberations and action regarding the matter.   The mere presence of the board member holds the potential of influencing  fellow board members and additionally, having declared a conflict of interests, there would reasonably be an appearance of impropriety in the eyes of the public should the member sit on the board.”

“Thus, it is our view that once a board member has declared that he or she has a conflict of interests  in a particular matter before the board, that the board member should recuse him or herself from any deliberations or voting with respect to that matter by absenting himself from the body during the time that the matter is before it.”

  • In Opinion 97-5:

“A member of the city council…if the interests of his or her employer are affected by matters before the council, recusal is that appropriate course of action.”  (Breathing Note:  If a member’s income is impacted by  his Board’s action, how can it matter whether that income derives from an employer or a gas lease?)

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As always,  Breathing articles are easily copied and pasted.  It’s good to get the research credit but it’s even more important that the work be used by concerned people for good  purpose.

Sullivan County Chair Asks Residents to Support Drilling Forums


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.”

PUBLIC COMMENT:

(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] StatoilhydroBritain’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.)

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*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.):

  • 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.

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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.)

Sullivan County Considers Drilling Resolutions. Barth Letter Postscript


Kudos to  the Sullivan County Legislature’s  Public Works Committee  for bringing drilling  before the  full  Board of Legislators!  The members of the Committee are David Sager (Chair),  Elwin Wood, Jonathan Rouis, Jodi Goodman, Leni Binder, Alan Sorensen and Frank Armstrong.

The Committee has  given us an opportunity to congratulate its members and to  ask  the County Board to:

  • hold public fora with  commissioners  and emergency responders for the benefit of  county residents;
  • anything else you believe  will help protect Sullivan County residents as we move forward.

If you wish to speak,  it’s suggested you get there  by 1:30.    Meeting begins at 2:00 PM

The Sullivan County Democrat’s full story on the  Committee’s resolutions can be read here and is excerpted below:

MONTICELLO — Legislators on the Public Works Committee unanimously agreed Thursday to ban gas drilling involving hydrofracking on all county-owned properties.
Citing environmental, water quality, traffic and property impact concerns, the resolution says no such drilling will be allowed “until such time as the potential long-term, cumulative and indirect environmental and public health impacts are adequately addressed and appropriate mitigation measures are identified.”
An accompanying resolution was also approved on Thursday, urging Congress to “amend pertinent federal laws to adequately safeguard the environment and the public from any environmental and health risks associated with hydrofracking.”
Both resolutions will go before the full Legislature this Thursday for official approval. The meeting is open to the public and will be held at 2 p.m. at the Government Center in Monticello.

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It was brought to my attention that the link to The River Reporter’s letters section which I included in my Hodgepodge :  Sullivan County Leases;  David Jones article is not working.

In a follow-up to  the “Hodgepodge” article,  Mr. James Barth, who authored  the letter concerning Mr. David Jones’ land transactions, wrote a comment at Breathing which provides background for the publication of his letter.

Those interested in reading his letter for a fuller understanding can find it here or  here.

Breathing recommends that regular readers of this column subscribe to the comment section’s  RSS feed in order to participate in its  “community forum” potential.  For instance,  one resident (“Deemer”)  has suggested local action in a comment this morning and is looking for feedback and possible support.

Gas Drilling : Sullivan County’s Hazards Mitigation Plan


In early January 1987,  emergency sirens in Cochecton, Lake Huntington  and Callicoon shattered  the cold  afternoon.*    The children and I stared fearfully at the Plektron© where it sat on its living room shelf  crackling with meager details.  Like any good fire chief’s wife, I didn’t  pick up the phone to call him.  He’d ring us  the minute he had a chance.

Slowly, painfully,  news reached us.  A train had derailed just behind the Callicoon hospital on route 97.  A chemical had spilled and was filling the air with  caustic vapor.

Snow and mud were making access difficult.  All we knew for certain was that several train  cars had jumped the track and were lying on their sides.

For hours,  the nature and toxicity of the chemical remained unknown but  our husbands, brothers and  sons  were having trouble seeing and  breathing.  The Ladies Auxiliaries prepared coffee and sandwiches that remained undelivered.  We were banned from the site.  Our unanswered questions floated in the air around us,  “Where’s Conrail?  What kind of  poison is it?  What’s happening to our men?”

Barely two miles south of the spill,  as our eyes and throats began to tingle,  we learned that young Doc Salzberg had rolled up his sleeves and was helping to evacuate the hospital.  There were too few ambulances for speed or efficiency.

The baby in my belly kicked as my own fear rose.  At some point,  I remembered to feed his brother and sisters and thanked the fates we weren’t amongst the families being forced from their homes.

That was the night  we learned there were serious holes in our  county-wide disaster response.

Within weeks of the incident, local leaders, representatives of ConRail and our Congressional representatives gathered at the Cochecton Firehouse and began to rectify the situation.  It was an admirable and worthy effort on the part of a small county with minimal resources and to this day,  I couldn’t be more grateful for the care our leaders showed.

Fast forward to 2010 and Sullivan County is asking  residents to help update its All-Hazard Mitigation Plan by completing and returning its Hazard Mitigation Questionnaire by March 31, 2010.  According to Sullivan County’s Division of Planning and Environmental Management,  “[The questionnaire] can be mailed, faxed or emailed to Michael Brother at Barton and Loguidice, the consulting firm that is conducting the plan update.  His contact information is listed on the first page of the questionnaire.”

Although the questionnaire does not address  gas drilling or hydraulic fracturing specifically,  comments concerning  the gas extraction industry and its potential for disastrous accidents can be appended at the last page of the questionnaire.

In December 2009,  the Cornell Law School Water Law Clinic submitted its comments on the Draft Supplemental Generic Impact Statement (dSGEIS) issued by New York State’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  The report stated, “...[DEC’s] current staffing incapacties must be remedied….To demonstrate the critical need for additional field staff, principal tasks specifically identified in the Chapter 7 of the dSGEIS are summarized in the 15-page Memorandum…”

In turn,  the Memorandum states unequivocally,   “…. The scope and extent of these tasks are clearly beyond the capacity of the DEC.” (Cornell comments dsgeis)  (Cornell Law School WLC Memo)

During Mayor Calvin Tillman’s  recent tour of upstate New York and Pennsylvania,   the DISH, Texas official  was asked,  “If a well catches fire in Texas, do local firefighters get called in?”

“No,”  he answered.   “We go to the scene  but  even emergency responders aren’t allowed on a site.  Even if they were,  most  don’t have special training.  If  a relief valve goes off,  our emergency responders  show  up  and  just wait for the guy to turn it off.  We can’t  get access.”

According to  the Environmental Protection Agency’s  (EPA) 2000  report on compliance in the Oil and Gas Extraction Industries, “Oil and gas extraction facilities are inspected much less frequently (46 months between inspections on average) than facilities in most other industries… and the enforcement to inspection ratio (0.05) is among the lowest of the included industries.” (Page 121: Environmental Protection Agency’s  Compliance Assistance Notebooks:  Oil and Gas Extraction Industry)  In a chart on page  120 of the report,  the “enforcement to Inspection Rate” in Region 2  (including New York State)  was  0.17%  while  Region 3’s rate  (including Pennsylvania)  was  .04%.   (More recent data was unavailable at the site.)

So, if  oversight and enforcement of  the gas drilling industry “is beyond  the capacity of the DEC,”  and  the enforcement ratio was already abysmal during Clinton’s “boom times”  in the 1990s,  what disaster mitigation can we expect now in cash-strapped Sullivan County relative to gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing?

Here are a few  clues:

  • if residents see  a possible gas drilling spill or other emergency,  we’re encouraged to call the EPA’s  newly-established TIPLINE  (877-919-4EPA)  or  email the Agency at  eyesondrilling@epa.gov
  • of the 30-plus gas extraction States in  the US,   only  Pennslvania and New York have no severance tax on the industry.  States that have the tax use its revenue for, among other things, community services and infrastructure;
  • under emergency conditions, the FRAC Act (S1215 – 5 sponsors,   HR2766 – 51 sponsors)   would require gas extractors to reveal the  fracturing toxins used at a  particular site.  Unfortunately, it’s nowhere near passage and  consequently,  there is no reason to believe emergency personnel would know the nature of the chemical soup confronting them.

Nonetheless,  as Sullivan County’s Manager, David Fanslau says, “Federal law requires that the municipalities of Sullivan County develop and implement local hazard mitigation plans in order to obtain future FEMA grant monies for hazard mitigation.  These plans must be updated every five years.  Upon final approval from FEMA, Sullivan County and each participating municipality must formally adopt and approve the plan.”

In light of FEMA’s requirements and the potential harm from  drilling activities,  Breathing suggests the following:

  • Encourage  the Sullivan County Legislature  to hold  public meetings where residents can hear  from, and ask questions of, our Commissioners of  Public Health, Public Works, Planning and the County’s emergency responders;
  • Ask your  Town, Village and County representatives if they were present in Narrowsburg on February 19, 2010 when  Mayor Tillman met with local officials to discuss his  and his residents’ experiences with the gas industry in DISH, Texas;
  • Ask your  County Legislator to propose and/or support a Resolution demanding  that New York State maintain a moratorium on gas drilling until  cumulative impact studies have been conducted on the industry and drilling; until Congress completes its investigation of  the industry’s practices;  until residents can be assured of adequate oversight and enforcement of the industry; until  New York State has a severance tax which can be used to train emergency personnel and maintain our infrastructure; and until the FRAC Act has been passed and communities have full-knowledge of the  toxins we’ll confront in an emergency.

Some County Legislators can be be contacted  here and if you’re not sure which District is yours, look on this Legislative District map.

Individual Town websites will have contact information for your Supervisor and Town Board.

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**Sullivan County’s Gas Drilling Task Force Report.   Its  Emergency Mitigation portion is excerpted here:

“Along with impacts to local road infrastructure, emergency management  issues are another concern at the local level. Interviews with Emergency
Management counterparts in other parts of New York State indicate that gas  drilling companies have been very good to allow the emergency services (police,
fire and EMS) to attend training sessions which explain how and where a drilling  operation will be set up to include a site visit and hands on question sessions. In
summary, our investigation has shown that most natural gas production wells are located in the Western part of the state and the Emergency Service agencies in
those counties have reported no fire or health hazardous to be associated in there areas for the past twenty plus years.  A few safeguard measures and protocols must be instituted:

  • We must be provided with a list of operational telephone numbers and  email addresses of management contacts and especially emergency contacts that can be called in the event  of an incident near or at a drill  site.
  • Each well site will need a 911 address and access information (gate and lock locations plus access) to ensure that emergency response units can access the site. As will be discussed in the section to follow, the driveway permit process at the town level can be integrated with 911 addressing provided by the Sullivan County Division of Planning. As will be discussed in the next section, the driveway permit forms will need to be revised to require a site plan showing the drilling site and driveway access, as well as photos of the site before construction, after a well is installed and after any subsequent change (e.g., when a well is capped or abandoned) requiring a change in or addition to the NYS DEC permit).
  • Interface with NY Alert to inform Sullivan County residents of a chemical spill or gas fire.
  • Communicate with the public about the importance of registering on-line with NY-Alert to secure receipt of notifications of emergencies.
  • Transportation of waste water/or fracing fluid should be reviewed with emergency response agencies by each operator of a drill site.
  • Emergency management personnel should have access to, or know, the contents of the fracing fluids, to know how to treat injuries and protect the health of emergency personnel and medical staff.
  • For the purposes of health treatment by EMS units and hospital ER’s, the exact contents of the fluid should be on record so that proper treatment is made available.
  • Municipal emergency management staffs need to interact with DEC Region 3 Office and the Mineral Division of the DEC to understand the use of blow out preventers during drilling operations to understand how to control unexpected flows of gas which could result in fires. Along with the DEC, municipal emergency management staff should witness a blow out preventer test prior to drilling.
  • Local emergency management personnel should understand the gas flaring procedure and the layout of flow lines. As for pipeline transport of product through the existing natural gas line or new lines as built, we already have emergency reporting information and training as to how to response to a natural gas line break. This information is updated yearly by the Columbia Gas Transmission Company with their contractor for safety:Paradigm Liaison Services, Wichita, KS.

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*Here’s a  NY Times reference to  what we subsequently learned was  an acetaldehyde spill behind the Callicoon Hospital  in 1987:

DERAILMENT IN UPSTATE NEW YORK CALLICOON, N.Y., Jan. 4 (AP) -Twenty-seven cars of a Conrail freight train derailed in a wooded area near the Delaware River this evening, discharging a hazardous chemical from one car and forcing the evacuation of several homes and a small hospital, state police officials said.

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Resources you might find helpful as you fill out the County’s  Hazard Mitigation Questionnaire:

Environmental  Protection Agency’s Emergency Planning and  Community-Right-To-Know Act

Environmental Protection Agency’s  Compliance Assistance Notebooks:  Oil and Gas Extraction Industry

Callicoon-On-The-Delaware: One Morning


I grew up playing baseball, growing veggies with my grandmother  and riding horses  in Madison, Ohio.  It’s   a small village in the northeast corner of the state  that sits  five  miles from the shores of Lake Erie.  When I was in school, the Cuyahoga River caught fire  regularly  and  “Help me!  I’m dying,” was scrawled in graffiti letters on the side of a Lake Erie  pier.   Anyone who lived along its banks already knew the lake was in jeopardy.   The miles of fish carcasses strewn along the shore were clue enough.

Today, I live in a lovely, well-worn  home overlooking the banks of the Delaware River in the Hamlet of Callicoon, NY.  Whether I drink my morning coffee on my front  porch or at a bedroom window,  the gleam of the river is the first thing I see each day.

I’ve stood on the bridge that connects Pennslvania to New York and watched vacation trailers float  beneath me in a torrent of brown flood.  I’ve watched ice floes pile and pile so high  that I’ve never doubted our  tenancy  rests  in Nature’s hands.

But for  more than the River, I came home to Callicoon for the people and early morning walks down Main Street.

This morning’s first  stop was  The Delaware Valley Free Library,  built in 1913.   As I approached the door with my ever-late book returns,  Bernie, a friend from “the PA side,”  poked his head out  saying,  “Got a minute?  We have to talk.”  His dark  hair hangs well below his stocking cap  and his salt and pepper beard reminds me of my old hippie days.  He’s wandered through the Far East and Buddhist Temples and now, he works as hard as anyone I know to preserve and protect the river and its hamlets.   He wants to be sure we’re  ready for  this Saturday’s  forum on  Gas Drilling and Public Health that we’re helping to coordinate.  It will be held in  Callicoon’s  Delaware Youth Center this coming Saturday.

At the back of the Library is a public room with murder mysteries and computers where locals chat  as often as they read.  As we finalize our last minute plans for the forum,  the owner of Callicoon Van & Taxi Service wanders in with a big “Mornin’, all!”  and settles at one of the internet terminals.  A half hour or so later,  as I pay my fines and check out a selection of  Martha Grimes and Louise Penny mysteries,  an elder whose head almost reaches my shoulder breathes toward my ear,  “Oooo.  Martha Grimes!”   “Yup,”  I nod.  “Richard Jury’s  my one true love,”  and the conversation’s  off  and running until I remember I’ve got three  more stops at least.  She pats the cover of  a book  I’ve just returned.  “The winter’s too long these days,” she sighs, “and I need all the books I can get.”

Headed toward The I.O.U.,  my favorite store in the universe,  I remember I need stamps.  Yes, stamps.  I send birthday  cards that carry  fingerprints and smudged ink because anyone who’s struggled down a birth canal deserves more than misty electrons floating in an ethernet pipeline.

The main lobby of the post office is closed.   Bud,   a long-time resident who migrated up from NYC decades  ago,  shakes his head at me from the driver’s seat of his truck.  “And it’ll stay closed for a full 90 minutes,”  he says.

“Well wouldn’t  Mae Poley and Wilda Priebe have called that  heaven in the old days,”  I say.   (Mae and Wilda were North Branch’s  post mistresses when I first moved to  The Delaware River Basin.  They’d taken over  from their mother  when she retired  and Mae,  her husband Earl  and their daughter Amy still  live in the old building that houses the PO.  When  I was a young  single mom with a baby to raise, the sisters   made sure I had plenty of house cleaning and dairy farm  jobs to feed the little bugger.  Neither of them ever closed the post office for more than  half  an hour and even then,  we all knew where to find them.  More than once,  Mae fed me lunch at her kitchen table.  She thought it’d keep me quiet till she was ready to re-open the window.   I still remember the day Wilda admitted she knew fewer and fewer of the  “new folks”  who were buying the old, empty houses in North Branch.  The Poleys, Priebes  and so many others are  woven into my life here in  The Basin. I’ve  cared for their loved ones  in the Callicoon Hospital,   rattled rafters with them at Democratic Party meetings and cheered all our  kids from Tee Ball to graduation.

“I like your ‘Drilling Isn’t Safe’  button,”  Bud says and I invite him to  the forum on Saturday.  For an hour, we catch up on all the people we know in common  and where they are.

“Ya’ know Barbara and George Hahn?”  I ask.  “Sure!”  he says.  “We were  in school together.”   Barbara was an RN who flew over the original Woodstock Festival in a medical helicopter with Abby Hoffman.  Her husband, George,  had the Jeffersonville Veterinary for decades.  They spent a whole afternoon giving me the skinny on my Jeff postcards.  Although, truth be told, their memories weren’t always…synchronized, George’s  family  hearkened back to the days when our first settlers spent their first winters hunkered down in caves till their houses could be built.  (The old Hahn farmstead was where Apple Pond Farm is today in Callicoon Center.)  Barbara and George moved to Connecticut this winter to be nearer their  kids.  “They lit my days,”  I say, missing them all over again.

Bud says his  daughter  was laid off when the Neversink Public School closed its reading program to save money.  “Can’t  pass a math test if ya’ can’t read,”  he mutters.

My heart was set on a stop at the I.O.U. but I still needed  a few things at Peck’s and as ever, the morning was nearly gone.

Peck’s is more than just a village grocery.  For years, Art and Beth Peck worked day and night growing  their first Narrowsburg store  till  it  became another and another and another.  Just as Beth’s energy fed the  Narrowsburg Library,  the local arts alliance and theater and a small news sheet that eventually became The River Reporter, when they retired, the Pecks ensured their employees were vested in the small chain’s future.  But that’s not why Peck’s is  more than a grocery.  As my friend Marci says, “If I’ve got things to do at home, I don’t dare go to Peck’s.”  Even if you make it down the aisles at a run,  there’s the check out where neighbors share the news of the day.   Among others, this morning,   I ran into Fred Stabbert, III,  publisher  of The Democrat,  Callicoon’s hometown newspaper.   He was in college when I first worked for the paper that was handed down from his grandfather to his father and not so long ago, to him.    Anyone who moves  to Sullivan County  should make it a point to read The Democrat’s  “Down The Decades”  page.  It’s a wonderful compendium of  more than 100 years of Sullivan County  history  — from the “white knights who protected our women”  in, thankfully, bygone  days to our more modern times.  Those pages, in concert with  Quinlan’s History of Sullivan County are a must-read if you’re interested in the foundations of your new home.

Most days, I feel a terrible urgency about painting  a picture the outside world will see and cherish as much as I do.  Our River valley’s  wealth and health depend on each of us.  We are a generous people.  We care for each other — for our   elders  who return home alone after a hospitalization  because their children have left   in search of better jobs;  for our young people  who are learning the old arts from teachers like Bobbie Allees over at the Sullivan West Central School in Lake Huntington.

Our memories are long,  stretching  back to the days when our early families  lived in caves above Callicoon Center and North Branch.  Much of our strength derives from our open arms;  arms that have welcomed organic sustainable agriculture to replace the old dairies.  Fiber artists, novelists, poets  and even Hollywood actors have made  The Basin their home.   And just this winter,  our valley  sent two of our sons to The  Sundance Film Festival where Zac Stuart-Pontier won critical acclaim as an editor for “Catfish”  and Josh Fox’s  “Gasland”    brought home  Sundance’s Special Jury Prize for Documentaries.

Like Appalachia, Texas, Ohio and countless others  before us, our valley faces a threat from outside.

But with each new year,  our farmers, artists, teachers, librarians, nurses  —  old-timers  and newcomers —  carve  a new historic tablet.

Please come to the  Delaware Community Center  February 20th at 4:00 PM.   Learn what gas drilling may mean to the future of our valley.

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(Postscript to yesterday’s article.   Bread bakers who read yesterday’s article will be unsurprised to learn that my pumpernickel  loaves  were reluctant to rise.  The yeast knows when the baker’s spoiling for a fight.  I suspect anger makes the air too heavy.)

Sullivan County Legislature: Solid Waste User Fee?


Dear Breathing readers:   So many issues, so little time.  Today’s opinion column comes to you from Tim Shera,  Sullivan County resident,  co-originator of   the Sullivan County Transition Towns initiative and long-time  peace and justice activist.   He is asking  Sullivan County residents to examine   our County Legislature’s  new  “trash law — Solid Waste  User Fee”  by  the light of  governing ethics,   unintended consequences and environmental degradation.  For the full picture,  County Manager  David Fanslau’s  letter about  the  Solid Waste User Fee  can be read here and the County’s 2010 Proposed Operating Budget can be reviewed here. (The Budget also includes a discussion of the Proposed User Fee on pages 8-10).*


*    *    *    *    *    *

Dear Sullivan County, New York:

The “trash legislation”  [“Solid Waste User Fee”]   passed recently  by our Sullivan  County Legislature  is  ill-conceived.  It lacks  strong incentives to recycle and unfairly  taxes  all householders at  the same annual rate no matter how little trash their residence  generates.

I am equally disturbed by  the Legislature’s  proposal to export Sullivan County’s  garbage to some other nearby community.  I am uncomfortable with exportation because it is fundamentally  irresponsible.  It shifts the burden to our neighbors who  are then forced  to live with our trash. Yes, the area that imports our garbage will  receive offset payments,  but I’ll bet the people living close to the landfill  (like those near  our own Monticello site)  will have little or  no choice about our waste being dumped in their backyards.

Would you willingly accept payment from  your next door neighbor to bury his trash in your yard?  As we become more sensitive about this,  I’ll bet we get responsible and stop exporting our problem.

Now to address our present situation,  I am deeply disappointed that the Legislature  (with the exception of Alan Sorenson and  Dr. David Sager)  did not incorporate a deeper wisdom and commitment to recycling in their legislation.  In large part, our beloved and beautiful earth allows and supports life  because, with the exception of some man-made  chemicals,  she recycles everything —  renewing and making available the  oxygen, clean water and  fertile soil necessary to our continued existence.   Recycling and other reductions of our waste streams are essential or the Earth’s ability to  replenish herself will be jeopardized.

Just a word about the inequity in the trash legislation before I close.   I recycle nearly  everything  by composting all veggie-type materials and  taking  recyclables to the landfill for which  I believe the county gets paid.   I end up each week with (at most)  1/4 of a Shoprite-sized bag that goes out as trash.

Why should I, or those with a similar commitment to our environment,  pay $181 a year for so little compared to others who contribute so much more to the waste stream?

Have any of you considered witholding $181 from the tax bill in January until such time as the trash law is made more  equitable and environmentally-loving?   Let me know:  (Tim Shera)  845-292-2279.

Solid Waste User Fee  Town Hall meetings will be held on:

–  Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at the Town of Tusten Town Hall, Narrowsburg, NY at 7pm

–  Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at the Liberty Senior Center in Liberty, NY at 7pm

–  Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at the Mamakating Town Hall in Wurtsboro, NY at 7pm

*Editor’s Note:   On a related matter (Sullivan County’s Proposed 2010 Budget) :  I searched  the Sullivan County site for more than half an hour looking for  Budget Hearing dates.   A  phone call to the Government Center revealed  that the dates  are  posted under an October 14th  Press Release from Jonathan Rouis.  Inexplicably, neither  I nor the clerk were able to find another  Budget Hearing notice at the County website. Breathing hopes you will copy and paste the following dates to your personal calendar  (or check the CottageWorks Community Calendar ):

Informational Town Halls (Public Hearings):   2010 Tentative Budget in the Hearing Room at the Government Center in Monticello, NY

Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 12  noon

Monday, December 14, 2009 at 7pm.

Breathing Is Political will initiate  coverage of the Town of Delaware’s public meetings and encourages others to do the same  in  their  own Legislative Districts and at the County level.  Those “citizen notes”  can then be centrally-collected in a “blogroll” or other forum and will facilitate concerted citizen responses and ideas. (A partial list of  Township meetings can be obtained  here or at  individual Town websites and a schedule of  Sullivan  County Legislative meetings is posted here.)

If you’re interested in working for free as a citizen journalist covering your  local government happenings,  give me a holler  at   cottageworks@lizbucar.com.


Sullivan County’s Proposed Budget: Union Give-backs


According to  The MidHudson News,  Sullivan County, NY’s  proposed 2010 budget “includes a five percent property tax increase and the elimination of 49 occupied positions and 54 vacant ones.  The County Manager, David Fanslau suggested union givebacks to save money and jobs.  They would include:

  • requiring all employees to contribute 15 percent of their health premiums;
  • change the 14 paid holidays to 13 full days and two half days; and
  • provide 8 ½ paid holidays and 5 ½ unpaid holidays.

Our County’s real estate sales are down 16% over last year and of the sales we’ve had, 12.1% were  bank-owned foreclosures.

Between September 2008 (when the global markets plunged)  and September 2009,  Sullivan’s unemployment rate jumped 2.2% from 6.4% to 8.6% .

The number of families  participating in New York State’s Food Stamps Program has increased  more than 22% during that same time period.

Some grocery stores in Sullivan County no longer accept WIC (Women,  Infants and Children) vouchers because, according to one manager,  it’s too hard and takes too long  to get reimbursed by New York State.   Although  WIC  statistics aren’t available  for 2009,   the  pre-crash numbers for 2008 showed an increase of 15,000 participants over 2007 (a year in which   the number of participants actually decreased.)

The bottom rung of the  Federal & State reimbursement ladder is  occupied by  counties, towns and  local Boards of Education.  They expend their dollars first and get re-paid last.

Local municipalities rely heavily on  sales and property tax revenues.  Budget managers make a best-guess estimate of what those revenues will be over the next year and propose their budgets on that basis.

For sure, it’s a sad state of affairs.  All the counties of New York State are reeling  under the rising costs of services,  crumbling infrastructures and failing revenue streams but let’s be clear here:  consumers and workers are the same people.  If workers’ wages fall as their health care costs climb, they won’t have dollars to spend in our local shops  — locally-owned shops that  are already struggling to stay alive on Main Street.  To ask  workers who generate income for the entire County to cover the shortfall  is as foolish today as it was twenty years ago.  If I still owned property in Sullivan County,  I would send a note to Mr. Fanslau and Mr. Rouis:  “Unfortunately, I  over-estimated my household income this year.  I will be unable to pay my full tax bill.  I hope you appreciate it was an honest mistake and will  stop  sending me those annoying tax reminders.  Most sincerely,  Liz Bucar.”

Twenty years ago,  I and the People’s Voice recommended that workers earning $30,000 or less  receive their scheduled pay increases without bearing additional health care costs.  We further recommended that  managers and legislators take salary cuts.  At that time,  our aggregated  recommendations saved the County nearly $2 million  without breaking the back of a single union employee.

Twenty years ago,  after  grossly overestimating sales tax revenues,   then-County  Administrator/Auditor Paul Rouis (in concert with the Sullivan County Board of Supervisors)  proposed a 60%+  property tax increase and  Union give-backs.   900  residents showed up for the County’s Budget Hearing that year (1990).   Mr. Rouis and most of the Supervisors  were thrown out of office during the  next election cycle. (For those of you who might be  wondering,  Mr. Paul Rouis  is the father of our current  Chair of the Sullivan County Legislature,  Mr. Jonathan Rouis.)

Twenty years ago, claims were made and substantiated by  Teamsters representatives  that  some  employees of Sullivan County Government were paid so little, they were eligible for Food  Stamps.  Those claims have re-surfaced during this year’s  budget deliberations.  I’ve  emailed  Mr. Jerry Ebert of  Teamsters 445  asking how many of our current County workers are eligible for and/or receiving social service assistance.

*    *    *    *    *


*Editor’s Note:   After searching the Sullivan County Government site for more than half an hour today,  a phone call to the Government Center revealed that dates for the Budget Hearing  are solely and  inexplicably posted under an October 14th  Press Release from Jonathan Rouis.  Neither  I nor the clerk found  another  Budget Hearing notice at the County website.     Breathing hopes you will copy and paste the following dates to your personal calendar  (or check the CottageWorks Community Calendar tomorrow):

Informational Town Halls (Public Hearings):   2010 Tentative Budget in the Hearing Room at the Government Center in Monticello, NY

Thursday, December 10, 2009 at 12  noon

Monday, December 14, 2009 at 7pm.

Solid Waste User Fee  Town Hall meetings will be held on:

–  Tuesday, November 24, 2009 at the Town of Tusten Town Hall, Narrowsburg, NY at 7pm

–  Tuesday, December 1, 2009 at the Liberty Senior Center in Liberty, NY at 7pm

–  Wednesday, December 9, 2009 at the Mamakating Town Hall in Wurtsboro, NY at 7pm

Going forward,  Breathing Is Political will begin covering  the Town of Delaware’s public meetings and encourages others to do the same  in  their  own Legislative Districts and at the County level.  Those “citizen notes”  can  be centrally-collected in a “blogroll” or other forum and will facilitate a coherent  citizen response.  If you believe that political events  in your town and county should be better-attended and more-fully reported, become a  Citizen Journalist.   Email me at  cottageworks@lizbucar.com.

(A partial list of  Township meetings can be obtained  here or at  individual Town websites and a schedule of  Sullivan  County Legislative meetings is posted here.)