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Environmental connections to public health >>

New Yorkers Focus On Gas Drilling Threat

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

By Elaine Shannon

Natural gas may seem clean, but it has a dark back story.

As Environmental Working Group has reported, gas producers out West have drilled thousands of wells with hydraulic fracturing or "fracking," which involves breaking open gas-bearing formations by injecting them with water laced with toxic chemicals like benzene.

To make matters worse, gas drillers have been exempted from the federal Safe Drinking Water Act and permitted to conceal, as trade secrets, the identities of the chemicals they're forcing underground.

Now gas producers are moving in to exploit the gas-rich Marcellus Shale, which stretches from New York state to West Virginia, and New York leaders are paying heed to warnings from EWG and others that fracking threatens New York's water supply.

Last week, the New York Times editorial page called for barring gas drilling in the New York City watershed. The Times asserted:

The dangers are particularly acute in the Marcellus Shale, which, unlike the relatively shallow formations found elsewhere, lies miles underground.Getting the gas out will require far more water and heavy doses of chemicals.

While the rules would require drillers to take special precautions in the watershed, there are too many points -- from the delivery of the fluid to the drilling site to the removal of spent fluid after it surfaces -- where poisoned water could escape into the water supplies.

On Friday, EWG senior analyst Dusty Horwitt is scheduled to testify about the dangers of fracking at a hearing of the New York City Council Committee on Environmental Protection, which has been probing gas drilling activities in the watershed.

Meanwhile, National Public Radio ombudsman Alicia Shepard has faulted the organization's September series on natural gas for failing to devote more than two of its 24 minutes to gas production's environmental destruction.

"The ultimate question is: Did this series give a reasonably complete and balanced view of issues concerning domestic drilling for natural gas?" Shepard wrote. "The answer is no."

According to Shepard, Brian Duffy, then the NPR projects editor, blamed NPR's financial woes -- symptomatic of the global news industry meltdown -- for the series' shortcomings. She wrote:

"Should we have covered the issue more thoroughly? Certainly," said Duffy, who left NPR's news department in late August. "This was a situation where we couldn't get all the bases covered because we had furloughs [caused by NPR's budget cuts] and vacation issues and changes in personnel.

The story absolutely did need an environmental component. I won't disagree with that. It's a shame we just couldn't provide it."

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