News > News > Safeguard Drinking Water > Riverkeeper Position Re DEC Decision to Exclude NYC and Syracuse Watersheds from Current GEIS Permitting Process

Riverkeeper Position Re DEC Decision to Exclude NYC and Syracuse Watersheds from Current GEIS Permitting Process

By Alex Matthiessen

Riverkeeper views the DEC decision to segregate the permitting process for the NYC and Syracuse Watersheds as a welcome and significant improvement over the status quo. Previously, DEC made insufficient distinction between the potential risks of drilling in unfiltered drinking water supplies and drilling everywhere else. We believe that this decision effectively takes gas drilling off the table in these two critical watershed areas that provide unfiltered drinking water to over 9 million New York state residents – nearly half the state’s population.

While we agree with many of the concerns cited by our coalition partners statewide who sharply criticized the DEC decision, Riverkeeper nonetheless believes the decision is an important – and overdue – one. Riverkeeper and other groups had urged DEC to use the DSGEIS to permanently exclude – i.e., ban – the NYC Watershed from gas drilling. In our view, the DEC has now done, in part, what it should have done when it issued the DSGEIS seven months ago.

DEC’s decision to segregate the permitting process for the NYC and Syracuse Watersheds will hopefully make it much less likely that drilling will ever take place there. However, we will not rest easy until such a possibility is eliminated. Riverkeeper will continue to seek an absolute and permanent ban on drilling in the NYC Watershed and support coalition efforts to make sure that not a single hydrofracking permit is issued anywhere in New York unless and until the State can credibly demonstrate that hydrofracking can be done safely and with minimal risks to local water supplies and natural resources. Moreover, we will support any coalition effort to urge DEC to add other sensitive and significant areas to the list of places that should be excluded from the generic EIS permitting process.

Below, we elaborate on how we see this decision and what it means for Riverkeeper going forward.

Why Riverkeeper believes the DEC decision will significantly decrease, though not eliminate, the chance that industrial gas drilling will take place in the NYC or Syracuse Watersheds

Even before the DEC decision, oil and gas companies were signaling wariness regarding the prospect of drilling in the NYC Watershed, in part due to the recognition that public and political opposition would be overwhelming. That was most obviously demonstrated in Chesapeake’s announcement in October 2009 to abandon its lease rights in the NYC Watershed. While this decision is not legally binding and would not prevent the company from trying to drill there in the future, it did serve as an acknowledgement that the obstacles presented a significant deterrent. (Of course, Chesapeake’s intent, like DEC’s, is to remove a contentious issue in the hope that it will clear the way for the DEC to finalize the Generic Environmental Impact Statement and start issuing drilling permits elsewhere.)

The very fact that the DEC will require developers to go through a separate and site-specific permitting process in the NYC and Syracuse Watersheds is itself a major deterrent to drilling there. Not only will such aspirants face major public and political opposition before they even file an application, but in having to produce their own site-specific EISs for every drilling site – as opposed to having the environmental impact questions already answered under the State’s Generic EIS – they will face significant, perhaps prohibitive, delays and costs in getting a permit.

In sum, while Riverkeeper much prefers a ban, we believe this separate process will present a real barrier to entry for developers seeking to drill in these two watersheds.

Riverkeeper’s post-decision position regarding hydrofracking in the NYC Watershed and statewide

Riverkeeper views the DEC decision as a significant but limited victory. The DEC has a long way to go to prove that hydrofracking can be done safely anywhere in New York. The agency must also demonstrate a willingness and ability to issue the necessary regulations and hire the requisite monitoring and enforcement staff to protect New Yorkers across the state from the potentially devastating effects of this intensive industrial activity. Specifically, Riverkeeper will continue to urge DEC to:

  • Impose a permanent ban on gas drilling in the NYC Watershed. We do not accept DEC’s explanation that a ban is not legally supportable – i.e., that among other problems, a ban would be challenged by watershed-based landowners as an illegal takings. We firmly believe that such a challenge is meritless and would not succeed. But even if such claims had legal merit, there are ways to mitigate the “loss” suffered by such landowners.
  • Suspend the process for developing and issuing a Final SGEIS, and impose a moratorium on issuing any gas drilling permits in New York, until the EPA has completed its “life-cycle” study of impacts from hydraulic fracturing.
  • Consider adding other ecologically sensitive or economically important areas to the list of areas that would be banned from drilling, or at least require a separate EIS and permitting process, as will now be required to drill in the NYC or Syracuse Watersheds. A partial but by no means exhaustive list of such candidate sites include the vast systems of creeks and rivers that comprise the upper Delaware River Basin, the Mohawk River, the upper Hudson, the Finger Lakes, and the renowned trout fishing streams of the Catskills. Also deserving of special consideration are the numerous state parks, preserves, and wetland areas that provide critical habitat for fish and wildlife, serve a variety of ecosystem functions such as water filtration, and stimulate major tourist and recreational-based economic activity.
  • To the extent that the State – after excluding other critical areas around the state and considering the findings of the EPA study – decides to move forward with permitting gas drilling in certain parts of the state, it should require whatever controls are necessary, regardless of cost, to minimize, and where possible eliminate, the hazards associated with hydrofracking technology in order to safeguard the health, safety and economic prosperity of communities across New York State.

Riverkeeper’s role in the anti-fracking campaign going forward

Riverkeeper will continue to advocate for the above outlined demands, which are consistent with the positions of most of our coalition partners around the state, though we recognize that some groups or communities are seeking an outright ban on hydrofracking for the entire state. We understand and support those taking that position even if it is not our own.

Riverkeeper’s mission is to protect the Hudson River and NYC watersheds. We view it as our responsibility to safeguard those areas that we are chartered to protect and to avoid undermining the efforts of others to protect their local resources.

In providing qualified support for the DEC decision to exclude the NYC Watershed from the GEIS process, we believe we have achieved both of those goals.

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