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Residents express opposition to fracking at public hearing; Share concerns about dangers

Sarah Buckley's opposition to hydraulic fracturing is personal for three reasons:

As a nurse, she believes people will suffer more health problems; she also believes a creek behind her childhood home will be threatened with contamination; and she is an expectant mother.

Buckley, a resident of Wales and co-founder of Protecting Our Water Rights, shared these concerns during the public hearing portion of "A People's Hearing on Fracking," held Saturday in Buffalo's Burchfield Penney Art Center.

Local organizations and activists joined together in opposition to fracking, the controversial practice of drilling through shale to extract natural gas. Local artists and musicians also participated.

The hearing was designed to give area residents a voice against fracking, something activists feel the state hasn't given them. Last fall, the state Department of Environmental Conservation held four public hearings to discuss fracking. None was held in Western New York.

"The No. 1 goal is really to engage Western New Yorkers in the topic," Buckley said of Saturday's program.

About 100 people attended the public hearing. Anyone could sign up to speak, and each person was allotted three minutes onstage. Speeches ranged from practical explanations on the perceived dangers of fracking to emotional appeals.

Proponents of fracking pointed to the emotional reaction to the issue as a flaw in the event itself.

The event offered skewed facts and promoted fear-mongering against fracking, according to Cherie Messore, director of public relations for the Independent Oil & Gas Association, a trade organization for the industry.

"What was missing from this morning's event was any factual, scientific evidence," said Messore.

Many of the speakers focused on water pollution.

Yet there is no evidence that fracking contaminates water, said Messore, who pointed to 2011 testimony from Lisa Jackson, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency.

On concerns about improper wastewater management, Messore said the natural gas industry is highly regulated, with a multilayered process to ensure safety.

"You can't embark on a project without submitting a permit to the DEC and every step in the process is regulated, and that includes how your wastewater is going to be treated and handled," Messore said.

Several members of People United for Sustainable Housing -- PUSH Buffalo -- sang popular songs altered to a fracking theme. The crowd clapped and joined in on Michael Jackson's "They Don't Care About Us," which was changed to "Frackers Don't Care About Us."

Trudy Stern, a nurse practitioner from Buffalo, read an original poem titled, "Alchemy of Gas to Gold," which criticized groups for misinforming the public about fracking in order to make money.

New York State banned fracking in the watersheds of Syracuse and New York City but not in Western New York. Buffalo and several towns in the area have banned fracking, but activists would like to see the state step in.

Major areas of concern include air and water contamination, improper management of wastewater, and the development of infrastructure related to fracking, said Rita Yelda, an organizer with Food and Water Watch and a speaker at Saturday's event. Pipelines carrying natural gas from Pennsylvania up to Canada could go through the area, she said. Plans to build a compressor station to transfer the gas are proposed for the East Aurora area.

Several local politicians and a representative for Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., were on hand for the program. Assemblyman Sean Ryan, D-Buffalo, said there is no need to rush fracking in the region because technology and regulations are changing rapidly -- as evidenced in Pennsylvania.

And when the state banned fracking in the Syracuse and New York City watersheds, Western New Yorkers felt left out of the conversation, he added.

"What about the rest of our watersheds? I think that question hasn't been answered," Ryan said.