Memo Details Problems with Gas Drilling in Western New York

New York State officials continue to insist that hydraulic gas drilling, like that planned for the state’s Marcellus shale region, is a clean, well-regulated industry. But a memo written by a health official working in drilling communities in western New York raises serious question about those assertions.

Hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, involves injecting water, sand, and a cocktail of chemicals at high pressure into rock formations thousands of feet below the surface. This opens existing fractures in the rock and allows gas to rise through the wells. The practice makes drilling possible in areas that 10 to 20 years ago would not have been profitable. Hydraulic fracturing, is currently used in 90 percent of the nation’s natural gas and oil wells.

New York State officials want to open up the states Marcellus shale region to this type of gas drilling. For now, gas exploration in the region is on hold while the state drafted regulations for hydraulic drilling.

The region encompasses the entire watershed in the Catskills that provides New York City with all of it drinking water. New York City doesn’t filter its water, thanks to a waiver from the federal Environmental Protection Agency. Instead, it has spent about $1.5 billion since 1997 to protect the watershed. City officials and environmental activists are worried that fracking in the Marcellus region will endanger New York City’s water.

Such fears may be well-founded. According to the Web site, William T. Boria, a water resources specialist at the Chautauqua County Health Department, reported his agency has received more than 140 complaints related to water pollution or gas migration associated with nearby drilling operations.

“Those complaints that were recorded are probably just a fraction of the actual problems that occurred,” Boria stated in a 2004 memo summarizing the issue.

“A representative I spoke with from the Division of Minerals insists that the potential for drinking water contamination by oil and gas drilling is almost non-existent,” Boria wrote. “However, this department has investigated numerous complaints of potential contamination problems resulting from oil and gas drilling

According to, county health officials also tabulated information on 53 cases from 1983 to 2008 on a spreadsheet. In several cases, methane migration polluted water wells, and in one incident a home was evacuated after the water well exploded.

The cases detailed in the memo and county database do not appear on a database kept by the state Department of Environmental Conservation to track problems and complaints related to spills and pollution, said. According to the site, Boria’s information contradicts regulators from the Mineral Resources Division of the state Department of Environmental Conservation who have characterized the industry as being problem-free in New York.

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