(This 985th Buffalo Sunday News column was first published on February 7, 2010.)


One problem of modern living is a direct function of the rapid progress of science. In self-defense we need to educate ourselves about new medicines, foods, electronic equipment, pesticides and even whole new industries. Unfortunately, major corporate money supports every listed item and politicians are under heavy pressure to bend to industry's best interests. The rest of us at least have to raise related issues of personal safety and environmental degradation.


So it is now with an issue that will affect the entire Appalachian Mountain range, an issue being identified with the single word, fracking. Fracking is an abbreviation for hydraulic fracturing of rock deep under the ground to release natural gas. This is accomplished by pumping water, sand and chemicals into that rock.


The process has evidently been widely used in the west, but it has now suddenly been found to be commercially applicable - aka money-making - to the Marcellus Shale of the Appalachians.


Many states are involved, but the federal Environmental Protection Agency has asked our New York State Department of Environmental Conservation to look into the matter. In its transmittal letter to the state, the EPA wrote that it "has serious reservations about whether gas drilling in the New York City watershed is consistent with the vision of long-term maintenance of a high quality unfiltered water supply."


I have tried to educate myself about both sides of the issues involved. Speaking for one side is Kathleen Sgamma, Director of Governmental Affairs for the Independent Petroleum Association of Mountain States, who claims that over 60 years 1,000,000 such wells have been dug without a single problem. When her opponents cite one that occurred at Dunkard Creek of Pennsylvania and West Virginia, she dismisses it as coalmine discharge unrelated to the fracking process.


I looked into that Dunkard Creek episode. It took just 20 days last September for the creek to turn from what Don Hopey of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette describes as "one of the most ecologically diverse streams in both states, containing freshwater mussels, mudpuppy salamanders and a host of fish species from minnows to 3-foot-long muskies, where generations of families picnicked along its sycamore-lined banks and fishermen plied its green, slow-moving pools" into an environmental disaster area. Betty Wiley, president of the Dunkard Creek Watershed Association, adds, "Everything is being killed almost from the headwaters of the creek to where it flows into the Monongahela River."


There is a mine water treatment facility nearby, but the Dunkard pollution is upstream from it and the water has been found to contain impurities related to the fracking process.


Operator-caused turbidity also occurred in 2007 at a well near Syracuse. The operator had to close down the operation, provide drinking water and install water treatment systems for nearby residents. Fortunately over a period of months the problem abated.


Other evidence has been turned up by the non-profit news organization, ProPublica. Its staff found more than a thousand reports of water contamination from drilling across the country, some from surface spills and some from underground seepage, as well as reports from dozens of homes in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Colorado in which gas from drilling had migrated into basements and wells.


When Richard Ranger, senior policy advisor for the American Petroleum Institute, was challenged by a reporter to show any studies demonstrating that that fracking is safe, he offered none but suggested, "Or says that it is unsafe."


In response to such concerns, the New York City Department of Environmental Protection has issued a report stating that "natural gas drilling and exploration are incompatible with the operation of New York City's unfiltered water supply system and pose unacceptable risks for more than nine million New Yorkers in the City and State." Joining them in opposition to Marcellus Shale fracking are organizations like the Sierra Club and the Adirondack Mountain Club, who claim, "What's bad for New York City is bad for the rest of us as well."


New York's draft Environmental Impact Study is generally favorable to fracking but calls for more studies. Our legislators will have trouble seeing beyond the projected state tax income and landowner leasing revenue to what I consider the near certainty of down-the-road problems related to our fragile water supply.-- Gerry Rising