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Another Voice: Local governments fail to protect water

By Ronald Fraser

“The government closest to the people serves the people best.” So goes a popular myth.

With their drinking water supply at risk from construction of National Fuel’s proposed Northern Access natural gas pipeline, how well have Southtown governments served their residents?

In 1987 the federal Environmental Protection Agency designated the Cattaraugus Creek Basin Aquifer to be the sole source of drinking water for 20,000 people in Delevan, Freedom, Machias, Yorkshire, Chaffee, Springville, Sardinia and Arcade.

These communities, warned the EPA, “Are entirely dependent upon groundwater for their drinking water supply. If substantial contamination were to occur, it would create a significant hazard to public health …”

For 12.8 miles the proposed pipeline would require clearing a 75-foot-wide right-of-way through the aquifer recharge area and then, using heavy construction equipment, excavation of a deep trench to bury a 24-inch pipeline.

It seems no one is taking the risk to the aquifer seriously.

Not the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission in Washington. The FERC’s Pollyanna response is: don’t worry. “Pipeline construction activities are not likely to result in significant impacts on groundwater resources … The direct and indirect impacts would be temporary and would not significantly affect groundwater resources.”

Not the Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany. Its denial of a required water quality permit is based on the pipeline’s unacceptable damage to 192 state-regulated streams and wetlands habitats along the pipeline’s route – without any mention of risks to the aquifer. National Fuel is challenging the permit denial in court.

Not even Erie County’s government. Once it was learned the pipeline’s original path would put two public parklands at risk, county officials promptly told National Fuel, “No way,” and National Fuel rerouted the pipeline. No mention of the aquifer.

How about the towns and villages? While town and village officials don’t have the authority to block the pipeline, New York law certainly assigns to them the responsibility to promote the health, safety and general welfare of their residents and their property in other ways. Why have they not:

• Called upon National Fuel to relocate its proposed pipeline out of the aquifer zone.

• Insisted on the addition of stringent environmental oversight and safeguards during construction and operation of the pipeline.

• Passed resolutions to publicly place responsibility on National Fuel for future damage to the aquifer resulting from the construction and operation of the pipeline.

Rural communities may do a good job collecting trash, plowing snowy roads and other routine tasks. But, when faced with a well-documented risk to the well-being of thousands of Southtowners, the governments closest to the people have failed, so far, to stand up and be counted.

Ronald Fraser, a former land use planner, lives in the Town of Colden.

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