BY JOE MAHONEY
COOPERSTOWN -- In the summer of 2010, residents of the Otsego County town of Pittsfield said they noticed a tanker truck equipped with nozzles spreading what they later learned was natural gas well brine on town roads.
They said they had a number of questions, including: Who permitted it and why? Where was the brine from? Did the liquid being spread pose a potential health hazard?
One who continues to question the release of brine from gas wells on public roads is newly elected Pittsfield Town Councilman Paul Stein. He is a retired New York City firefighter who responded to the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center. Among the 2,606 people killed at Ground Zero were 341 of Stein's fellow firefighters. When both towers collapsed, Stein said he was enshrouded in dust and debris.
He recalled how, within days of the calamity, Christine Todd Whitman, then-chief of the Environmental Protection Agency, attempted to assure responders that the Manhattan air was safe to breathe. But Stein said he spoke to a rank-and-file EPA worker who told him otherwise. "Wear a mask," he recalled being told by the EPA worker.
A subsequent medical test would reveal Stein lost 39 percent of his lung capacity as a result of breathing contaminated air, he said. He said he was left with a healthy sense of skepticism toward environmental pronouncements by government officials.
He brought that skepticism with him, he said, when he moved upstate and settled into Pittsfield, where he has an organic farm.
"I was having difficulty breathing on Long Island, and I wanted to come up to where the air was clean and the water was allegedly clean," he said. "Then I realized this whole hydrofracking thing was coming this way."
Stein, 50, said his concern with the brine spreading was the main reason why he decided to run for town council.
Today, he said he has lost confidence in the state Department of Environmental Conservation for permitting the spreading of gas well brine through its Beneficial Use Determination (BUD) program.
According to the agency's website, state regulations give the DEC "jurisdiction over waste material which is to be beneficially used."
The spreading of gas brine in Pittsfield by a firm called Al-Kleen Inc. of Earleville was permitted by the DEC in 2010, according to state records.
Pittsfield Town Supervisor William Beckwith said town Highway Superintendent Douglas Lum agreed to allow Al-Kleen to spread the brine for dust control and road stabilization because "it was approved by the DEC." He also noted that Al-Kleen charged the town no money for discharging the brine on public roads.
"It was offered for free, and that was one of the incentives, and supposedly there would be no problems with the environment," he said.
But Beckwith said town officials became concerned that the brine spreading could pose an environmental hazard and opted out of the arrangement with Al-Kleen.
Al-Kleen Vice President Lory Irwin said the liquid discharged by the company's tanker trucks included no dangerous toxins. If the liquid did contain such materials, she said, "the DEC would not allow it."
Irwin also said the brine was supplied by gas companies drilling in New York state, and not from gas well operations in Pennsylvania.
As to why Al-Kleen asked Pittsfield to allow it to release the brine on public roads, she said, "It's a benefit to the town."
DEC spokesman Rick Georgeson said draft state regulations that would govern high volume hydraulic fracturing for natural gas "specifically prohibit the use of Marcellus Shale production brine" from road spreading until the environmental impact from that activity can be assessed.
Under the BUD program, Georgeson said, "designated spread locations must avoid sensitive locations such as state forest areas, wetlands and surface water bodies."
When asked for documents detailing the contents of the liquid that Al-Kleen is permitted to spread, Georgeson said he did not have that information immediately available.
Irwin said the DEC analyzes the brine once a year. Georgeson, asked why the testing is limited to once yearly for each BUD permit applicant, said, "You assume it (the waste material) is not going to change from application to application."
Stein and other critics of the brine spreading that took place in Pittsfield said they have no documentation yet to indicate dangerous materials were released into the environment.
Walter Hang, president of Toxics Targeting, an Ithaca organization that opposes the spreading of natural gas brine, said the brine waste from conventional gas drilling is typically contaminated with radioactive nuclides and toxic solvents.
He called the DEC's BUD program "a huge loophole in the regulatory system."
Gas brine spreading by Al-Kleen has also been permitted by the Chenango County town of Columbus. That town's highway superintendent, Kevin Cross, said the town accepted DEC assurances there was no threat to public health.
In Pittsfield, Stein said he sees little difference between spreading the brine on roads and allowing it to be discharged directly into streams and rivers, arguing the liquid cocktail will leach into those waterways eventually.
He said towns should be very suspicious when a company asks to put down brine at no charge.
"The reason why they are spreading this stuff is to get rid of it," Stein said. "I'm outraged the DEC allows this."