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Cary Brunswick

October 29, 2011

Nov. 8 looms large for friends, foes of hydrofracking

The future of fracking _ and perhaps our region’s clean water _ will likely be decided in the courts, but perhaps also in the voting booth on Election Day, Nov. 8.

Hydraulic fracturing, when millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals are pumped underground at high pressure to release natural gas, is unsafe and potentially polluting.

 Since it’s clear that the state’s proposed regulations are going to open the vast majority of our region to fracking, it is vitally important to make sure local people have a say in what goes on in their communities.

That’s why Nov. 8 is such an important date in the fight to save our local environment. More than 30 anti-fracking candidates are running for local office in Otsego County, including the county Board of Representatives, various town boards and the Oneonta Common Council.

What’s at stake at the county- and town-government level is the possibility that municipalities could have the power of ``home rule’’ in the battle to keep fracking out of their boundaries. Whether counties and towns actually have the power to control their own environmental fates is a matter the courts will have to decide.

There is a law that gives the state Department of Environmental Conservation ultimate authority on the regulation of oil and gas drilling, except for control of the use of local roads.

However, the DEC was aware of the movement for home rule when it issued its revised draft GEIS on July 1. The revised proposal required Marcellus shale drillers to ``compare the proposed well-pad location to local land-use laws …” Any conflicts would instigate further DEC review before approval of a drilling permit.

The DEC likely also was aware that the state Assembly had passed a bill that would give local drilling bans more weight than the law gives to the DEC regarding the granting of drilling permits. The state Senate has not acted on the bill.

In the meantime, numerous towns, counties and cities across the state have enacted land- and/or road-use laws that effectively bar fracking from occurring. In Otsego County, five towns and the city of Oneonta have done so.

Lawsuits have been filed against two towns that approved land-use changes that would prohibit fracking. Locally, a landowner sued the town of Middlefield, and in Tompkins County, a gas-drilling firm filed suit against the town of Dryden.

Both lawsuits cite the law that gives the DEC exclusive rights to regulate gas and oil drilling. The towns are arguing that they are not trying to control gas drilling, but merely regulating land use, which is a power vested in municipalities.

These legal battles could set a precedent for all the suits that have yet to be filed. But until the matter is decided, it is important for other towns and even counties to proceed with land-use provisions that will prevent fracking within their borders.

And several towns in Otsego County are indeed talking about it.

The best way to push those undecided municipalities to proceed is at the ballot box. Thanks to the efforts of Sustainable Otsego and other groups, those 30-some candidates have filed to run for office Nov. 8 on the SO or other independent anti-fracking ballot lines. Most also will be on major-party lines.

Nicole Camarata, of Concerned Citizens for the Town of Oneonta, said candidates are running in the town who are ``willing to protect the citizens from hydrofracking activities. They will honor the petition signed by over 1,700 residents to ban heavy industrial land uses, including hydrofracking.’’

According to John Kosmer, Sustainable Otsego candidate for county board in the town of Otsego, ``The wave of anti-fracking sentiment demonstrated by petitions and surveys which have culminated in five towns in the county prohibiting fracking for natural gas shows that people turn to local government when all else fails.’’

And it has not been often that so many local candidates have surfaced in unity on an important local issue. It is yet another sign that people are losing faith in government at the state and federal levels and turning to their localities to protect themselves from the infringements of environmental risk.

Question where your candidates for town and county office stand on fracking and the campaign for local bans. Your vote could be one of the most important you’ll ever make in a local election.

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net.

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