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Amherst Town Board agrees to draft a local law banning “fracking”

The Town of Amherst is weighing in on the debate over hydraulic fracturing, agreeing to ban both “fracking” and fracking waste within town borders.

Under pressure from environmental groups, the Amherst Town Board on Monday voted unanimously to create a local law prohibiting fracking, the controversial mining technique used to extract natural gas.

While the Amherst law banning fracking would be largely symbolic – there’s no imminent danger of fracking taking place in the town – opponents can now add Amherst to the list of municipalities across the state that have passed similar bans, including Buffalo and the County of Erie.

In the larger picture, fracking opponents see it as a message being sent to Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and New York State, which is studying the potential impact hydraulic fracturing has on public health before it decides whether to permit fracking.

“Even if it’s looked at as symbolic it’s still helpful, because it encourages other towns and cities to protect themselves and that’s not a bad thing,” said Rita Yelda, of Amherst Against Fracking. “We don’t know what’s going to happen 20 years down the road.”

Yelda’s grass-roots organization approached Amherst officials about joining more than 170 other municipalities across the state by adopting a local law banning fracking.

That local law will also prohibit the use of any fracking waste in Amherst.

The fracking process uses millions of gallons of water mixed with chemicals to blast open pores within the rock below the surface of the earth to allow the natural gas to escape, which opponents say poses significant environmental damage and health risks.

That fracking waste also can be used as brine to help de-ice roads.

“We’re very pleased with what the Amherst Town Board accomplished today,” Yelda said. “I think they realized fracking does have a far-reaching impact that goes beyond the well site.”

The fracking issue took up more than an hour at Monday’s meeting of the Town Board as more than 20 people spoke during the public comment period.

One by one, they asked the Amherst officials to pass the local law.

“The Town Board of Amherst must pass legislation to ban fracking and fracking wastes, including prohibiting the spreading of drilling waste on our town roads,” said Sara Schultz, a member of Amherst Against Fracking and the Sierra Club Niagara Group.

“Amherst residents deserve protection from the contaminated water, smog-filled air and the health consequences of the reckless gas industry,” she added. “The board must put Amherst residents’ health and future before these corporate interests.”

The Town Board had two competing resolutions to ban fracking – one of them sponsored by Democratic Council Members Mark A. Manna and Ramona D. Popowich and the other sponsored by Supervisor Barry A. Weinstein and Councilmember Guy R. Marlette, both Republicans.

There was some political back and forth among the board members about which resolution to pass or whether to combine the two.

Council Member Steven D. Sanders wanted to table the matter altogether. He questioned whether a local law was really needed, considering fracking is neither permitted in Amherst nor economically viable.

Sanders’ comments were greeted with a few boos from the audience.

“I’m not a supporter of fracking,” Sanders said. “I’m willing to support the symbolism and still pass this resolution.”

Ultimately, the board approved the Weinstein-Marlette resolution, while the other resolution was passed along to the town’s attorney to help draft the local law.

“It was a good compromise,” Weinstein said after the meeting.

“No matter what form tonight took my goal is to create the strongest local law possible,” Manna said. “I’m happy the residents’ efforts were recognized.”