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Guest Column

July 31, 2010

Guest Column: 'Mostly safe' not good enough for gas drilling risks

I have received input from people on both sides of the gas drilling issue. I have also heard several presentations, looked at many documents, and observed videos from gas companies and from those in opposition.

The document that had the most influence on me in regard to the impact of gas drilling was "Energy Boomtowns & Natural Gas: Implications for Marcellus Shale Local Governments," compiled by the Pennsylvania State University Northeast Regional Center for Rural Development.

I believe that vertical gas drilling technology as currently practiced is mostly safe when done with adequate time and safety oversight. For high-volume hydraulic fracturing, however, I do not see that adequate safety procedures are in place. Two red flags raised high are the oil and gas industry exemptions in the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and insufficient staffing at the state Department of Environmental Conservation. Adequate assurances that safeguard us from accident prevention and emergency management are also lacking.

When Orville Cole of Gastem gave a presentation at the July 7 county board meeting, I asked what would happen if there was a major explosion or other incident here in Otsego County. He replied that Gastem would bring in professionals from Texas, that they would not need to rely on our local, mostly volunteer, emergency response staff.

This is not an adequate plan. We're not going to stand around and wait for help to arrive from Texas. "Mostly safe" is not good enough in a circumstance like this.

In our area, we take for granted clean, abundant and safe water supplies. Clean water is an economic asset and precious resource. Why sell millions of gallons of it to be polluted in order to extract a fossil fuel? We can live without more natural gas. We cannot live without water. Therefore, I do not support selling water to drillers.

In Otsego County, three industries have provided economic stimulus for many decades. Tourism allows this county to use sales tax to fund a major share of our county government. Very few other counties in New York can rely on sales tax as we do. Although dairy has suffered, agriculture is still a mainstay. It is clearly going through re-organization, but uncontaminated farmland is a valuable asset situated close to major population centers. In Oneonta, we have two colleges that regularly attract thousands of students to our area. Will Oneonta look like such a prime place to send fledging young adults when we have truck traffic that would rival some cities downstate, and the threat of toxic spills? Our open spaces could be a legacy destroyed by this single decision.

Like many extraction industries, the jobs projected by the gas industry are often filled by migrant labor already trained in the work. The Pennsylvania study found that an increased crime rate was one of the unexpected outcomes of this industry. People who have no roots in the area are unlikely to care what their police blotter looks like here.

Housing is another issue. The study showed that housing became an issue when the gas drilling industry moved in. This extraction industry will come in and be gone in 20 years; meanwhile, we may put at risk three industries that historically have been and will continue to be economic generators.

We have not fully optimized our current industries. Development in all three areas would be far more prudent and protective of our resources. The gas will remain underground. If safer, less intrusive ways to extract it become available, we can revisit the issue.

When a friend of mine was told by a "land man" that she may as well sign since all her neighbors had signed, she smelled a rat. In fact, not one of her neighbors had signed! It appears we're getting the bum's rush. Let's think of our children and their children.

Shale gas is a reserve to be tapped prudently, not something we have to rush into without adequate protections. The EPA study is essential to good decision-making on this issue, and I therefore support a moratorium on drilling until the study is complete. I am against gas drilling that creates fiscal, ecological and health costs the rest of us will have to pay for many years to come.

Marti Stayton is District 11 (Oneonta Wards 1 and 2) representative to the Otsego County Board.

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