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Jan Lee headshot

New York State to Ban Fracking Due to Health Risks

Words by Jan Lee

This week, New York state joined the growing list of states and communities to ban hydraulic fracturing (fracking) within its boundaries. After years of contentious debate over the safety of fracking, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's announcement Wednesday that he would move to unilaterally ban fracking was not completely unexpected. Still, environmental groups are counting the Department of Health's report that "[high volume hydraulic fracturing] should not proceed in NYS" as a victory.

The decision is the result of the health department's two-year analysis of an environmental impact assessment of fracking along the Pennsylvania-New York border. The proposal to allow fracking was being promoted by industry groups and some small communities that had been energized by reports that similar towns in Pennsylvania were gaining economic leverage from natural gas exploration. The Department of Environmental Conservation's impact assessment, however, didn't address whether there could be potential health risks associated with fracking, or the extent of impact on the state's drinking water sources.

According to Acting Commissioner of Health Howard Zuker, the DOH wasn't able to quantify the potential health risks to residents, and that may have been the most damning part of the report.

"[The overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information contained in this Public Health Review demonstrates that there are significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF, the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impacts which could adversely affect public health]" said Zuker in his introductory letter to the Department of Environmental Conservation (DOC).

The risks included impacts from:

  • Respiratory health issues from various forms of exhaust

  • Climate change impact from methane and other chemical releases

  • Water contamination from chemicals

  • Potential spills into the environment

The DOH report noted an impressive list of similar studies that have delved into the risks associated with fracking, but it was careful to mention that there still isn't a clear definition of the environmental or health impacts of hydraulic fracturing and natural gas exploration. It called upon health and environmental experts to broaden the scope of research.

"[It] is clear from the existing literature and experience that HVHF activity has resulted in environmental impacts that are potentially adverse to public health. Until the science provides sufficient information to determine the level of risk to public health from HVHF and whether the risks can be adequately managed, HVHF should not proceed in New York state."

But the clearest message came from Zuker's own anecdotal statement on the issue when he admitted that, given the choice, he would not want his family to live in an area where fracking was being conducted.

What the DOH's analysis didn't cover, of course, was the economic options for those communities that had been counting on the booming revenues of fracking investments. Communities in New York's section of the Utica and Marcellus Shale regions have reportedly seen fracking as a way to increase employment and household incomes, an endemic problem for towns in New York's  rural communities.

But as the U.S. Senate Urban Affairs Committee found when it conducted hearings in shale-rich Fayette County, Pennsylvania earlier this year, improved economic conditions aren't a guarantee for local residents when the natural gas industry comes calling. Increased problems with housing availability, cost of living and other challenges have been common offshoots of fracking in semi-rural areas, as North Dakota communities have found.

And not all residents of the state's undeveloped countryside wanted fracking in their backyards. Wines and Vines pointed out, when a temporary moratorium was instituted in New York in 2010, that the state's most popular wine estates sit next door to its rich natural gas drilling reserves -- a potential worry for an industry that relies on dependable water sources, spacious terrain and jaw-dropping vistas in which to court prospective tourism.

But while environmental groups can rejoice over the ban, the answer of how to ensure economic parity in New York's rural towns is still a challenge that needs to be addressed. And as organizers of other initiatives like the Keystone XL Pipeline have found: In unemployed, low-income rural areas, where there is economic disparity, there's often a willing ear to development, even if it comes with an environmental cost.

Image of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo: Metropolitan Transportation Authority

Image of NY Catskill area: Tony Box

Jan Lee headshotJan Lee

Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.

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