Is hydrofracking safe with DEC?

News and analysis by Dan Telvock, Investigative Post's environmental reporter

A year-old state report leaked to the New York Times and Gannett’s Albany bureau says that hydraulic gas drilling can be done safely if the state Department of Environmental Conservation stays on top of the regulations.

Never has there been an environmental issue in New York that has garnered so much emotion and attention than hydrofracking. A record-breaking 80,000 comments were sent to the DEC when it released its first review of the controversial process of extracting natural gas deep underground with sand, massive amounts of water and chemicals.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has long delayed a decision on hydrofracking in the state, saying he will rely on science —not emotion. This is the same governor who directed a “white paper” on air pollution at the Peace Bridge that local academics were highly critical of for its lack of science.

The DEC has brushed off today’s media reports, saying the analysis is outdated. But even this leaked analysis doesn’t appear to be based on any science, according to Katherine Nadeau, the water and natural resources program director at Environmental Advocates of New York.

Nadeau told the New York Times that, “The document itself is not a health impact study at all. As drafted it is merely a defense or justification as to why the administration didn’t do a rigorous study.”

Today’s revelation begs another question: Is the DEC up to the task of regulating hydrofracking?

A look at the agency’s track record in Western New York shows it hasn’t always been diligent.

Investigative Post reported in November how the DEC has been lax in its enforcement of idling rules at the Peace Bridge. Health studies have linked the fumes from trucks at the Peace Bridge to numerous respiratory illnesses of residents living in the Lower West Side. The DEC has sent enforcement officers to the bridge just twice since May and issued three tickets for excessive idling. The agency inspected a total of 81 trucks, or just over 1 percent of the trucks that park throughout the property each month.

Then there is Tonawanda Coke, a coal plant that the DEC let pollute the community for decades with high levels of Benzene until the Environmental Protection Agency took action in 2009, arresting the plant’s environmental control manager. In this case, the EPA handed down 20 federal indictments and more than 100 notices of violation of various federal environmental laws. Where was the DEC?

Don’t forget about DuPont, which the EPA in May 2012 fined $165,000 for violating the Clean Air Act after years of inaction by the DEC.

There also are a lot of people wondering if the DEC’s Division of Mineral Resources, which is responsible for regulating the oil and gas industry, can do so fairly when its director doesn’t think global warming is real.

Bradley J. Field, the director of this division, signed the Global Warming Petition years ago, basically saying that global warming is a myth. Before he came to DEC, Field worked for Getty Oil and Marathon Oil. Also, check out this scathing report on Field from the Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy.

Maybe most important is the issue of understaffing at the DEC, which was candidly exposed back in 2010.

The author of a memo that leaked in 2010 about DEC layoffs stated that the agency was “in the weakest position that it has been in since it was created 40 years ago.” According to the author:

The memo further explains that from 1997 to 2008, the responsibilities delegated to the DEC continually increased, while layoffs also increased … With reduced staff, but increased responsibilities, the agency’s ability to preserve the environment and protect human health has been compromised.

Adrienne Esposito, the executive director of the Citizens Campaign for the Environment, told Investigative Post today that the DEC’s staff and budget has been cut between 20 percent and 30 percent over the past decade.

“So how can the governor expect them to do more with so much less?” she said.

Sandra Steingraber, an ecologist and member of New Yorkers Against Fracking, said the leaked document dismisses the health impacts of fracking and “confirms public fears that the pressure to allow fracking is trumping the actual concerns New Yorkers justifiably have about how the inherently dangerous process would affect their health.”

“The state is claiming the document to be outdated, but it is currently the only substantial information available to the public pertaining to the state’s examination of fracking’s health impact; the Cuomo administration has refused to release anything – including this document – and has placed gag-orders on the independent health experts hired with tax payer money,” she said.

“This is truly government at its worst with secrecy akin to undemocratic ruling and conclusions about one of the biggest potential health hazards to New Yorkers drawn from flimsy reasoning. This backwards, sham process further elevates the dire need for a true comprehensive public health impact assessment of fracking.”