Citizens of Auburn Stand Up to Hydro-Fracking

From the July-August 2011 PNL #806

by Alex Bissell

Hydro-fracking is an issue that is cropping up in the public consciousness of New York with increasing frequency. Rallies, like the one on June 2 at Auburn, are becoming more and more common. With the DEC’s release of the draft SGEIS, citizen action to ensure the government is looking out for their best interests is becoming very important.

So, what is hydro-fracking and why is it so detrimental to the health of humans and the environment? These questions call for a compact introduction to this messy subject.

A pool of dumped wastewater next to several
tanks on Ohio citizen Harry Boyd’s property.
Used with the permission of Harry Boyd.

A Toxic Practice by an Unscrupulous Industry
What is likely being referred to when “hydro-fracking” comes up is the relatively new practice of high-volume, horizontal, slickwater hydraulic fracturing.  Under the 1992 Generic Environmental Impact Statement (GEIS), hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling were allowed, though never combined. 80,000 gallons was the quantity of water projected at that time as the ceiling for fracking operations. However, new methods have since evolved, giving rise to high-volume hydro-fracking operations, which use in excess of 300,000 gallons per stage.

Besides “high volume,” the new methodology is also described with the terms “horizontal” and “slickwater.” “Horizontal” refers to the leg drilled after the completion of the vertical hole, which can stretch out laterally for thousands of feet. “Slickwater” refers to the toxic chemistry that accompanies the procedure.

The supplement to the GEIS currently being produced by the DEC is supposed to take these new developments into account. Until the final version is released, drilling into shale gas units is being permitted infrequently in New York. The Marcellus formation is the most prominent shale. Besides containing the desired gas, it is also filled with many naturally occurring toxic elements like bromide, arsenic, barium, and even radioactive ones like uranium, thorium, and radium. Any fluid pumped down into it is likely to come back up contaminated, and it is that fluid which is sent to wastewater plants for treatment and release. What is alarming is that those plants are not equipped to treat high salinity or radioactivity.

Citizens of Auburn Make a Stand
At the wastewater treatment plant in Auburn, the focus of recent rallies, drilling waste from hydro-fracking operations is already being accepted. When questioned in March of this year, Bruce Ross, assistant civil engineer at Auburn, stated emphatically that they do not accept “horizontal frack-water” or “water from the Marcellus formation.” However, Terrence Cuddy, a resident of Auburn and co-founder of the Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance, found this official story was not actually the case.

The Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance approached local officials about the acceptance of wastewater from horizontal hydro-fracking operations. Mr. Cuddy reports that the officials were very defensive in their response, and shortly afterward six citations were given by the city to drilling companies for “not submitting self-monitoring reports.” Encouraged by this apparent validation of their suspicions, they looked deeper and found that, despite the official policy of only issuing twelve-month permits, several companies had been issued four-year permits.

A FOIL (Freedom of Information Legislation) request to the city of Auburn revealed several anomalies at the plant. Anshutz Exploration, despite a certificate stating their wastewater comes from vertical wells, has four horizontal wells listed on their Attachment A (a document listing a company’s permitted wells). Not only that, but the documentation also showed that Auburn received water from Anshutz that was not from any of the Attachment A wells, and that no lab analyses were performed on these. There are approximately seventy lab analyses missing. What few lab analyses were performed showed regular violation of permitted pollutant concentrations. 

Chesapeake Energy, another of the companies permitted to dump waste at Auburn, did not have an Attachment A at all. Additionally, two of the wells from which material was transported by Chesapeake and Anshutz were, in fact, from Marcellus shale (in spite of Mr. Ross’ vehement statements suggesting otherwise). These are just a few of the discrepancies that were uncovered.

On May 5th, armed with these alarming facts, Terrence Cuddy and the Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance presented the city council with five-hundred signatures against Auburn’s treatment plant receiving drilling wastewater. When this did not appear to make the desired impact, they got another  800, for a total of 1300 signatures. On June 2nd, they organized a rally of 200 individuals who went to the city council and delivered the additional signatures. There, for 90 minutes, 24 speakers spoke about the issue of hydro-fracking waste.

In the aftermath of the protest, the mayor of Auburn proposed a moratorium on accepting gas drilling wastewater which recently passed with a 3-1 vote by councilors. This is a shining example for the rest of New York. It proves that hard work can pay off, and that petitions and rallies are still a viable way to make your voice heard. Speak up!

Alex, resident of Rochester and student at SUNY Oswego, is an intern with Neighbors of the Onondaga Nation.