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November 11, 2011

Seward blasts DEC at fracking hearing

ONEONTA -- Draft state regulations that would govern hydrofracking were roundly criticized Thursday night, with state Sen. James Seward, R-Milford, saying they offer uneven and inadequate protection to most upstate New Yorkers.

Seward, the lead-off speaker at a hearing held at the State University College at Oneonta, questioned why the rules advanced by the state Department of Environmental Conservation would create 4,000-foot setbacks for the water supplies of New York City and Syracuse while setting those buffers at only 2,000 feet elsewhere in New York.

"I resent the fact that the water of New York City and Syracuse is deemed by the DEC to be more important than the rest of the state," he said to loud applause.

The senator later added, "It's unfair -- and it represents in my mind a political decision and not a scientific one."

Seward also said he was disappointed the state agency decided to host a hearing on the draft rules in New York City -- where no natural-gas drilling would be conducted -- but opted not have such a forum in Otsego County, where the gas industry has already leased numerous tracts of land.

Seward lauded his home-rule legislation that, if passed, would empower towns and cities to set local restrictions on gas drilling. He told The Daily Star later that the gas industry is trying to stymie it in Albany.

Thursday's forum, attended by about 400 people, was organized by the City of Oneonta, the Otsego County Conservation Association and Otsego 2000. Testimony was recorded by a stenographer and is to be submitted to state officials, who are expected to give it the same consideration as comments taken at four upcoming state hearings on the draft rules. DEC has said it will stop accepting comments Dec. 12. The hearings are required by the State Environmental Quality Review Act.

Vicky Lentz of the Otsego County Conservation Association urged the state agency to suspend all permitting until the federal Environmental Protection Agency concludes its study on the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water.

"The gas isn't going anywhere," she said. "We urge the state to make sure that both the technology and the process are perfected and proven before moving forward."

While most speakers came out against fracking, there was a smattering of support for gas drilling.

David Parker of Worcester said draft limits against high-volume hydrofracking near certain watersheds and primary aquifers were "overly restrictive." But he also said it was "encouraging" that the state agency would let landowners waive the 500-foot setback requirement from his or her private well.

Dick Downey of the Unatego Landowners Association said his group eagerly looked forward to the arrival of gas drilling in New York and "the economic revival it will engender." He called on the state to create a "universal system of reporting (drilling-related) incidents" throughout New York.

One of the most stinging criticisms of the draft rules came from Ronald Bishop, a SUNY Oneonta chemistry professor who called the state's recoverable shale gas estimates "exaggerated." He suggested the state is relying on data provided by the Independent Oil and Gas Association of NY (IOGANY).

"Our DEC officials are not competent to independently evaluate IOGANY's claims, or they are complicit with gas industry advocates in exaggerating projected benefits," Bishop said.

Teresa Winchester of Otego, an unsuccessful anti-fracking candidate in this week's election for the Otsego County Board of Representatives, cited a recent Duke University study that found many wells near shale-gas drilling and hydrofracking sites in northeastern Pennsylvania had been left contaminated by methane. She also urged the state agency to withdraw its draft regulations until it can fulfill its mission of protecting the state's natural resources.

Sustainable Otsego founder Adrian Kuzminski, whose group helped Democrats pick up two seats on the county board in this week's elections, ticked off a list of 41 reasons why he said the draft rules should be shelved. Among what he called flaws were no attempt to assess the impact driling would have on residential property values and no assessment of risks posed by major fault lines.

The first of the four state-run hearings will be held Wednesday at the Dansville Middle School in Livingston County. The second hearing will be the following day at the Forum Theatre in Binghamton. The third hearing will be held Nov. 29 at Sullivan County Community College, and the final forum will be Nov. 30 at Tribeca Performing Arts Center in Manhattan.

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