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The fracking question has a possible answer

To frack or not to frack, is that a question? Gov. David A. Paterson deserves credit for his historic executive order of Dec. 13, the first ban on hydrofracking in the nation. He has given New Yorkers six months to ponder the use of high-volume hydraulic fracturing and horizontal drilling in the production of natural gas. He asks us to weigh the potential wholesale contamination of our fresh water supply against the economic benefits of a few years of fossil fuel from Marcellus Shale.

That is not a question. We can't live without water.

The real question comes down to what Paterson left out. He did not ban vertical gas wells or their fracking. New York is host to thousands of vertical wells that are an important part of our current economy.

The U.S. Department of Labor says that exploration for and the distribution of natural gas in New York State employs 4,500 people and in 2005 it paid $53 million to landowners in royalties.

The existing gas industry in New York is important, unless you happen to live near a gas well that spoils your well water and fouls the air you breathe. Amherst's US Energy Corp. was welcomed to the Erie County Town of Collins when it promised free home-heating gas and $585 a year to a landowner. Now three families living near the hydrofracked vertical US Energy well have undrinkable well water contaminated by gas and they are plagued with illness.

On Dec. 16, the Gastem Co. of Montreal made a triumphant press release announcing the success of its 4,950-foot vertical "Ross 1" well in Otsego County. But eight water wells nearby are believed to be contaminated with gas by Ross 1. Julie Solloway gave touching testimony before the Otsego County Board on the illness her family has suffered.

Sen. Robert Sweeney of Long Island may have an answer to the fracking question in his omnibus Hydrofracking Bill A11347. This carefully worked bill provides much tighter regulation of the gas industry than we have now.

Here are a few specifics. It designates drilling wastewater as hazardous waste, allows for local zoning control of well sites, requires disclosure of chemicals in hydrofracking and outlaws the use of any that are harmful to human health. It holds both landowners and drill operators liable for damages and requires air and water quality evaluation before and after drilling. The section on water permitting needs work. No one should own our water any more than they should own our air.

Sweeney's bill may provide tight enough regulation to allow for the continuation of current gas production in New York. But high volume hydrofracking and horizontal drilling is such a water spoiler and water glutton that it is beyond question.

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Larry Beahan is secretary of the Niagara Frontier Chapter of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

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