Mon, 20 Feb 2012 14:38 UTC
The state Department of Environmental Conservation has received more than 61,000 comments, from one-paragraph, hand-written notes to 85-page technical dissertations, all in response to an environmental report released in September. And now the DEC must review those comments - plus the 13,000 comments submitted on the 2009 draft report - and respond to them.
"It's a massive undertaking," said Gregory Sovas, a former DEC official who now works for mining companies and landowners.
State officials say it will take months to review and respond to the comments, which will be incorporated into the final environmental report. That report will help determine whether the state allows hydrofracking.
The 74,000 comments received by the DEC on hydrofracking dwarf by nearly 100 times the previous record: 800 on the expansion of a cement plant in Albany County approved last year.
In Pennsylvania, where hydrofracking has been going on for more than a year, a governor's advisory commission on hydrofracking received about 800 comments last year.
The unprecedented outpouring of viewpoints from New Yorkers - overwhelmingly against the drilling - illustrates the passion and fears that surround hydrofracking, which both sides agree will have large and long-term consequences for the state. It also shows why the 1,500-page draft hydrofracking report has already taken four years, with no certainty that the state will finally made a decision by the end of 2012.
Hydrofracking is a controversial drilling technique that shoots millions of gallons of water and chemicals into deep rock formations to release natural gas.
Opponents say the process will poison drinking water and turn rural communities into industrial zones. Proponents say hydrofracking will create jobs, raise tax revenues and help the United States break its dependence on foreign energy.
"The economic impact of shale ... is in the billions of dollars with thousands of new jobs in an area of declining population and employment," wrote the president of the Associated General Contractors of New York State in a four-page comment. "It is an opportunity we cannot allow to pass us by."
New York state law requires the DEC to issue environmental reports, accept public comments and then respond to every "substantive" comment. That's an undefined term, said Steve Russo, the top lawyer for the DEC.
"'I don't like it' or 'I think you're crazy' - those aren't substantive comments," Russo said. "'We think you need to do a comprehensive study of potential health effects' - that's a substantive comment. We summarize the substance of those comments and respond to them."
Not all 61,000 comments from the current period are unique. Some people e-mailed identical comments a dozen times or more. More than 15,000 paper comments are form letters, from groups on both sides.
"They're going to separate out the form letters from the more meaty comments," said Sovas, who served 22 years as director of the DEC's Division of Mineral Resources. "What they're really going to focus in on are the substantive, technical comments."
Responding to comments doesn't mean acknowledging each one and who wrote it. Instead, the DEC must mention the essence of the comment in the final report. If someone says all hydrofracking should be banned in lake watersheds, for example, the DEC must note that comment and address it. If 1,000 people all raise the same point, DEC has to respond to it just once.
All responses to comments must be included in the final report, which DEC officials say should be done this year. After that, the agency issues its decision on whether to allow hydrofracking and, if so, adopts regulations to govern the drilling.
Only then can the state issue permits to drillers to start hydrofracking.
The term "comment" can range from a single paragraph to dozens of pages. A man from Palmyra wrote two sentences in favor of hydrofracking. The Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, whose members support hydrofracking, submitted more than 100 pages of highly technical comments. The 80-page comment submitted by the Onondaga Nation in opposition included 18 attachments.
"The Onondaga Nation asks that the DEC have the courage to do the right thing, to withdraw the (environmental report) and ban hydrofracking throughout New York state," the nation's comment read.
Russo said the DEC has 58 people reviewing the comments part- or full-time. In addition, the consulting firm that helped draft the hydrofracking report has also deployed at least 10 employees, he said.
The DEC has set up a special area dubbed "the bullpen" on the third floor of DEC headquarters in Albany. The first task is to scan all of the comments that came in on paper, which comprised about 34,000 of the 61,000 comments. The law doesn't require them to be scanned, but DEC officials say that makes it easier to categorize and to respond to Freedom of Information Law requests.
One DEC employee injured her shoulder because of the repetitive motion of scanning documents, said Wayne Bayer, a shop steward for the Public Employees Federation in Albany.
Bayer said different divisions of DEC have been required to send at least one person to the bullpen to help out.
"That was not a very desired mission," he said.
Hydrofracking has generated so much attention because its effects are broad and long-lasting, and because the two shale formations, the Marcellus and Utica, that could be hydrofracked extend over two-thirds of New York state.
"You're talking about a very large geographic area," said Richard Brickwedde, an environmental lawyer in Syracuse who was the DEC regional attorney for 11 years. "You're also talking about the Internet and Facebook and Twitter and all those things expanding the number of people who are receiving information about the topic."
Comments came from all over the state and from a variety of sources. Twenty-nine nuns from the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities near Rochester wrote in. So did the Associated General Contractors of New York State in Albany.
The one-man Gases for God Coalition sent the DEC a YouTube link to a satirical video criticizing fracking. The group's tagline: "The NYS Gases for God Coalition is devoted to extracting wealth from the Earth - before the next generation beats us to it."
Churches, environment and community groups, government officials from the town to the federal level, small businesses, farmers, health organizations, landowner coalitions and private citizens submitted comments.
Margaret Sutton of Skaneateles, who owns a painting restoration studio with her husband, John, wrote to say hydrofracking is too dangerous.
"I felt the need to say something and to voice my views," Margaret Sutton said. "It was important to just be counted as saying something, not just sitting back and letting it happen."
The state hasn't kept track of how many comments are pro- or anti-hydrofracking, but a random sampling reveals few supporters. The Gannett newspapers reported in mid-December that comments up to that time were running 10 to 1 in opposition. The comment period ended Jan. 11.
Robert Oliver, of Liverpool, was one of those in opposition. He said he's fighting an uphill battle against well-funded drilling companies.
"It's one of those light-a-candle kind of things, I guess," Oliver said. "You hope that there are other like-minded people and that it will have an effect."