By Rita Yelda:
On January 10th Erie County Executive Mark Poloncarz signed a law that prohibits the dangerous natural gas extraction method of fracking and highly toxic fracking waste from being disposed of on Erie County-owned land, joining numerous counties across the state that have stepped up to protect their residents from this dangerous substance. For Erie activists, this success was the product of much work.
In early December the Erie County Legislature held a public hearing where residents presented 3,845 petition signatures in support of the proposed law. The Erie County Legislature passed it in a 9-2 bipartisan vote shortly thereafter. December 30th brought a public hearing from Poloncarz in which the capacity audience held signs with slogans like “Erie County Ban Fracking” and “Don’t Frack Erie County.” The community overwhelmingly demanded protection from the contaminated water, smog-filled air, and health consequences of the reckless and dangerous gas industry.
Local legislation is significant because currently Governor Cuomo is weighing whether or not to allow fracking in New York State. Though he has insisted that his decision will be guided by science, his administration’s actions thus far have lacked transparency and scientific rigor. Further, with or without regulations in place, fracking is a menace to the environment and public health, and it emits greenhouse gases at disturbing levels that undermine its environment credentials.
A report published in October 2013 by Environment New York Research & Policy Center indicates just how bad fracking would be for our communities. Citing data from 17 states over a nine-year period, scientists found case after case of contaminated drinking water, chemical spills and elevated levels of airborne carcinogens. Fracking puts more costs and stress on municipalities, whether they’re being sent fracking waste to process or having to pay for road repairs from the increased truck traffic. Case studies of fracking have shown negative economic impacts of fracking such as accelerated road maintenance, traffic congestion, higher public safety costs, increased demand for health and education services, increased demand on public administrative services (such as planning and zoning), and new service requirements, such as emergency response capacity.
While the fracking process itself is very dangerous, it’s important to be aware of the risk posed by fracking waste as well. There currently is no safe way to dispose of fracking wastewater and no way to clean out the toxins from the waste before introducing the “treated” liquid into the environment. According to the Endocrine Disruption Exchange, more than 600 chemicals are used in the fracking process, about 25% of which have been demonstrated to cause cancer or mutations, and about 47% have the potential to affect the endocrine system and reproduction. The waste can also contain radioactive elements picked up from the shale rock below the earth’s surface.
Currently fracking wastes coming in from Pennsylvania are under-regulated in New York. The gas industry pawns fracking waste off on unknowing municipalities and treatment facilities that cannot handle the waste properly; it often arrives mislabeled as “industrial waste” despite levels of radioactivity. In some areas chemical-laden fracking wastewater is sprayed on dusty roads as road treatment or turned into a salt to melt ice, directly exposing communities to the chemicals used in drilling. Despite the current de facto moratorium on fracking in New York State, Erie County could have also faced the threat of the spreading of a fracking by-product on our roads. According to documents obtained by Riverkeeper in 2013, used fracking fluid, called production brine, can now be spread on roads in Wyoming, Erie, Cattaraugus, and Seneca counties.
This risky extraction process and reckless disposal of chemical waste is what County Executive Poloncarz and the Legislature has thankfully safeguarded our county from. Poloncarz and the bill’s sponsor, Legislator Betty Jean Grant, should be commended for passing this important and timely legislation that puts county residents’ health and future before corporate interests. Erie County residents have gotten what they expect and deserve: protection of their fundamental rights of health and safety from the dangers of fracking and fracking waste. Residents have seen the air, land and water contamination that fracking has caused other states and they are thankful that Erie County is on the side of the people.
Rita Yelda is an organizer at Food & Water Watch, a national nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that works to ensure clean water and safe food, and is founder of the Buffalo-based grassroots group Western NY Drilling Defense.