Environment
11:30 pm
Fri June 22, 2012

Fracking: A New York Perspective

Toni Grekin lives on a farm near Deposit, NY, a one-stoplight town just north of the Pennsylvania line. A transplant from Brooklyn, she's been there since the '60s. Behind her farmhouse are acres of tree-covered hills and a little swimming pond. Energy companies first came to Grekin about four years ago, because she lives in a so-called "sweet spot" of the Marcellus Shale.

"I started out terrified. It wasn't a question of not being thrilled, I was panicky, I was terrified," said Grekin, a 67-year-old massage therapist. She's turned down offers from the companies repeatedly.

"We could say no. I have neighbors that are holding onto what they think of as economic security by that much. They love their land the same way I love my land, but I don't think many of them could say no. It was that or losing their land," she said.

Some people signed up and some — like Grekin — joined landowner groups. After hearing the industry out, her view of drilling began to change. "That doesn't mean kowtowing to Exxon Mobil. It means encouraging the DEC to do what it's supposed to do. And I think this governor has been doing that," she said.

The DEC is the Department of Environmental Conservation, which under Governor Andrew Cuomo has been working on an environmental review of hydrofracking for four years. Fracking in New York is on hold until the report is finished.

People have drilled for natural gas in New York since the 1820s, but hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, has made it much easier to get the gas from out of dense rock formations like the Marcellus.

Landowner coalitions in this part of New York, known as the Southern Tier, have been vocal on how the state should protect their land. Dan Fitzsimmons, president of Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, said he agrees the DEC should decide whether or not fracking can be done safely. "I just trust and hope that they stick with the science and don't get into the emotional end of it."

Fitzsimmons is also a landowner in the nearby town of Conklin. His group has written model leases that require specific water protections and has even sent requirements for well casings to the DEC.

"Those are the things, the environmental things, that we can do something about and protect," Fitzsimmons said.

"But the problem is that right now, across the state, much of the land that would be ideal for fracking is already under lease," said Katherine Nadeau of Environmental Advocates of New York, "and those leases are not written to protect the landowner or to protect the water quality."

Nadeau said she thinks the DEC hasn't done enough to prepare for fracking. Her group is calling for a health impact study and better monitoring of fracking wastewater.

But Fitzsimmons, of the landowners group, insisted New York's Southern Tier needs the jobs drilling could bring.

"You look at what we were back in the 50s, with IBM here and all the different companies that were here. They're all gone. They've left. We don't have anything anymore," he said.

This kind of talk is part of the reason why Governor Cuomo has said if the state does allow hydrofracking, the first permits should be issued in this region.

Support from the industry stems from the fact that natural gas has made instant millionaires of some in nearby Pennsylvania, but there are also stories from south of the border of contaminated well water and divided communities. These reports have set some people in Deposit on edge, including Melissa Bishop, originally from Long Island, and Gail Musante, from Pennsylvania.

Inside Musante's house, they've gathered with a group of others opposed to drilling. The group is afraid fracking could ruin its well water and the quiet nature of this country town.

Bishop and Musante take offense at the notion that people like them, who came from other places, shouldn't have as much say in the issue as those who've been here for generations.

"That's very arrogant. How dare they say that," says Bishop.

"Do you have to have a family, you know, generations and generations, to have a right to be a person in Deposit?" asks Musante. "Or can you be a resident for 15, 20 years and be considered a legitimate resident, person and citizen in Deposit?"

Despite their protests, Bishop, Musante and their friends are realizing that the fracking boom could be coming here, sooner rather than later.

This story is part of "Gas Planet," a special presentation of the Allegheny Front.