Shame on the corporations and the politicians who fail to protect us, but shame on us, too, if we play the silent game and let the bullies win

To the Editor:

I applaud the editor of The Altamont Enterprise for last week's editorial shedding light again on issues related to impacts of hydrofracking, and especially for reminding us that we have a choice about how we respond to those (and other) issues. 

It was instructive to follow the contrasting processes and vastly different reports produced by the towns of Rensselaerville and Westerlo.  I believe the differences reflect differences in expectations, accountability, and attitude. 

I read the hydrofracking reports produced by Rensselaerville and Berne and they are both excellent.  The report produced by the Westerlo hydrofracking committee is, in my opinion, incomplete, poorly organized, and tainted by gas-industry bias.

Getting a copy of the report: The committee chairman repeatedly said the report submitted to the town board in April 2013 was final and would not be changed.  The electronic copy I received through the Freedom of Information Law (after appealing a denied request) had the file name: Final Report 1-13.

A council member, after the report was publicly criticized, said it was a draft report and was released to me in error.  This shows both a remarkable flexibility when it comes to dancing around an embarrassing problem and an incorrect interpretation of the Freedom of Information Law.

I consulted with the New York State Committee on Open Government and received the determination that the report “constitutes a town record falling within the coverage of the Freedom of Information Law, and its review by members of the Town Board is irrelevant in relation to a request made pursuant to that law.”

Incompleteness:  The report focuses on generic information and there is a lack of information specific to Westerlo: no reference to any town law or to the draft Comprehensive Plan; no baseline description of Westerlo water resources or discussion of potential impacts to the quality and supply of those resources; no reference to the Basic and Alcove reservoirs which supply city of Albany drinking water; no baseline description of air quality and potential impacts to air quality; no discussion of toxic waste management; no discussion of impacts to noise, earthquakes, roads and bridges, HAZMAT [hazardous materials] training and emergency responders, businesses, jobs and economy, social structure, community character, property values, mortgages and homeowners’ insurance. 

And, despite the inclusion of 44 pages of the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation Draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, not a single word about compulsory integration — New York State's forced pooling law that can compel landowners to be annexed to participate in a drilling unit against their will.

Organization:  The report, in general, is carelessly constructed and contains many basic composition errors.  This carelessness undermines confidence in the report's integrity.  The committee's intended target audience was the people of Westerlo, who they thought would have had the responsibility to decide on the issue of hydrofracking by referendum, except that in May 2013, after repeated questions from townspeople, a referendum on this matter was determined to be illegal.

Townspeople and the town council were all left with a report that was difficult to follow, heavy with pro-fracking industry language, and peppered here and there with valuable information that was often minimized or obscured.

The table of contents doesn't match the text and many report topics are not even listed.  Italics are used inconsistently to represent both quoted and original material.  There are many long narrations of “scientific” information, with no attempt to organize it for a general audience.  Yet, in the introduction the “Westerlo citizenry” is directed to “Please read this report in its entirety.”

Bias:  The introduction says, “A committee was formed where the foremost criteria for membership were total non-bias, time to donate and computer skills.”  Three of the original five members, by their own admission, knew very little about the Internet and rarely, if ever, used e-mail.  Other townspeople who applied had computer skills but were ignored, presumably because they were judged to be “biased” against hydrofracking.

But the report produced was, in my opinion, substantially biased.  Here are some examples:

The very first chapter after the Westerlo Profile, page 6, describes “With contribution from National Association of Manufacturers” industrial perspectives on the economic benefits of Shale Gas Development.  Strategically placed as it is, at the beginning of the report, its tone telegraphs, to me, a pro-industry bias.  This does not mean that given a thorough inspection of the entire document, I necessarily concluded that the authors believe hydrofracking would be good for Westerlo.  However, instead of conveying industry-neutral language and information, this section conveys many of the industry's own claims.

Pages 31 to 50 are largely a “how to frack” manual extracted from the American Petroleum Institute.  It is peppered with “shoulds” (e.g. Operators should...The training should...).  What relevance does this have for making a decision for Westerlo?

Page 38, describing fracking fluid, mentions water as the primary component (by volume), sand as the next largest constituent (by volume) then merely says “other additives may be essential to a successful fracture stimulation operation.”  Those “other additives” include hundreds of chemicals the industry does not have to disclose.  Many of those chemicals are toxic even in very small amounts. 

Page 39 describes the API policy on gag orders, which compels the states, if they want industry business, to put industry secrets above the rights of citizens to know what is going on in their own communities that might affect their health, safety, environment, property values, etc.  Doctors in Pennsylvania are challenging this — they can't even discuss the problems their patients face.

Page 39 also says that fracking “should not be regulated under the [federal] Safe Drinking Water Act (SWDA) or any other federal statute.” (Actually fracking is already exempt except for dumping diesel fuel.)  The industry prefers that the states regulate drinking water.  Examples of industry non-compliance with Pennsylvania regulations can be found in the list of violations by well site at http://www.stateimpact.org/Pennsylvania/drilling/wells.

New York, which doesn't have good regulations to begin with, also doesn't have the DEC personnel to enforce those regulations.  They don't even effectively deal with the hundreds of abandoned and disintegrating conventional gas wells in the state.  

Page 49 covers job-site safety.  It says, “The CSB [Chemical Safety Board] determined that there are currently no comprehensive, specific industry standards or guidance addressing the safety of members of the public at oil and gas sites.” 

The Westerlo authors add:  “As long as there are people to commit acts of stupidity which cause injury to themselves and others there will be accidents.”  However, human error is not always “stupidity” and can be substantially reduced by focusing on safe practices and procedures (e.g. the effectiveness of pilot walk-throughs, hospital checklists, instruction manuals, etc.)

The hydrofracking committee has flip-flopped and ignored or changed (without public discussion) its purpose more than once.  Now it has been reconvened, without a town board member as chair, even though the latest version of a resolution clearly specifies this.

The current committee is comprised of three of the members who produced and signed off on the original report.  It appears that no one else is to be added to the committee.  This is despite the willingness of other community volunteers to serve.

Two improvements of the current committee:

— 1. Unlike the original committee, this one announces and holds public meetings, and

— 2. This committee takes input from residents.  Whether that input makes it into the report remains to be seen.

It will be two years in January since the first resolution to convene a hydrofracking committee was adopted by the Westerlo Town Board.  The report sat around untouched from April 2013 until October 2013.  Now, all of a sudden, it's supposed to be done ASAP, according to the committee chair. 

I hope the people of Westerlo will have the benefit of a report that steps back from advocacy and bias, is well organized and clearly written, so that each person can form his or her own opinion and understand the potential consequences of hydrofracking in our town.

I've studied this intensively for more than a year and a half.  I've visited northeastern Pennsylvania to see what fracking looks like, smells like, and feels like.  We've all seen the idyllic ads on TV, basically saying shale gas is great.

Why aren't there any ads about kids with lifelong gag orders? families sickened? animals and wildlife dead? countryside turned into industrial zones? toxic “accidents” left and right?  Money.  They don't have millions to buy their way into our brains.

Do you remember the Marlboro Man?  Such a romantic image.  Except lung cancer isn't so romantic.  Do you remember Love Canal?  The BP Gulf fiasco?  Exxon Valdez?  The General Electric PCB superfund sights?  And Mereco? Which was originally proposed to be in Westerlo.

If we don't learn from history to hold industry and government accountable for the health, safety, and welfare of our communities, what will remain for each of us and the ones who come after us?

Shame on the corporations and the politicians who fail to protect us, for sure, but shame on us, too, if we play the silent game.  It's almost always won by bullies. 

Thank you for listening to me.
Dianne Sefcik
Westerlo

Editor’s note: Dianne Sefcik had volunteered to serve on Westerlo’s hydraulic fracturing committee but was rebuffed.

This letter appears here, online, in full form as submitted; the print version was edited to fit the Enterprise’s thousand-word guideline.

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