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Is New York's Governor Opening a Pandora's Box?

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FRACKING
AP

"New Yorkers shouldn't become unwilling data points in a mass health experiment, " says Sandra Steingraber, the ecologist-biologist author of Raising Elijah and Living Downstream. "I want to be able to tell the 3,300 people diagnosed with cancer today, and the 3,300 people diagnosed tomorrow, and the next day, and the next, that we're not sending toxic chemicals that interfere with hormonal and cellular functioning into the water aquifers."

Last weekend on my radio program, "Connect the Dots," I interviewed Steingraber, a cancer survivor herself, whose in-depth study of the dense and interlocking frontiers of science, health, environment, and public policy, has led her to champion caution prior to incurring mass health risks.

With recent evidence that fracking chemicals can migrate far from a frack site, should people have to play "believe it or not" with the safety pronouncements made by gas industry P.R. and advertising campaigns? As a scientist, Steingraber argues that instead we need scientific studies. Calling herself scientifically conservative, she suggests that elected officials and regulators shelve fracking until independent scientists have taken the time to gather the data, and analyze the health and environmental impacts. But the economic imperative of gas companies is not to wait, but to exert pressure upon politicians.

Steingraber points out that data about impacts can be gathered in the neighboring frack boom state of Pennsylvania. But she argues that the benefit of the doubt should rest with public safety not with gas companies. Because if New York were to proceed with fracking, but without studies, it would be the first time that sizable urban populations will have been placed at risk for exposure to fracking chemicals. Studies show these chemicals can migrate over distances in water, while ozone causing air pollution travels even farther.

The recent recipient of the prestigious Heinz Award, Steingraber, instead of using the $100,000 award monies for her own research, recently announced that she will donate the gift to the organizations working to protect New York's water. Calling fracking the "civil rights issue of our time," Steingraber likens the grass roots organizations to the abolitionist movement, which sought to retool the U.S. economy, and end our dependence on slaves. Ending the enslavement on fossil fuels is a shift Steingraber views as both possible and essential.

Yet as the December 12th deadline rapidly approaches for the public comments on Governor Cuomo-sponsored approvals to frack New York, there are seven things New Yorkers need to know and three things they need to do to preserve their water supply, air quality, and health.

What New Yorkers need to know:

1. The temporary moratorium on fracking may end as soon as public comments are digested, and Governor Cuomo approves the new state-wide fracking guidelines. (Public comment closes December 12th. To comment go here.)

2. No federal regulations assure clean and safe drinking water during or after fracking since this recent new form of drilling was exempted prophylactically by Dick Cheney. See my Huffington blog here.

3. No environmental research demonstrates that, given the state's unique geology, flood zones, seismic activity risks, and the aging of the water reservoir infrastructures, that the New York City water supply can be made safe from fracking chemicals.

4. Although fracking uses hazardous industrial carcinogens, Cuomo's 15,000-page environmental guidelines (called the SGEIS) contain neither current nor future plans to assess fracking's attendant health risk, impacts, or costs. For more on SGEIS, go here.

5. A group of 250 physicians urged the governor to conduct studies, saying it would cost billions of dollars to remediate urban water supplies. Learn more here.

6. There is clear scientific evidence that fracking would appreciably worsen the ozone levels and air quality of New York City, Steingraber told me in this eSIO interview.

7. Gas and oil companies exert a disproportionate influence on politicians through lobbying and campaign donations, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

As this list shows, given all of the consequences, known and unknown, fracking New York is not to be undertaken lightly, solely based on industry assurances, especially given the multitude of documented problems in Pennsylvania and elsewhere. (For more on the PA frack boom aftermaths, listen here.) Unless elected officials and regulators drill a bit deeper into the real risks and costs, they are not doing their job of serving the public. Fortunately, efforts to remind them of that responsibility (even in the face of industry pressure) can succeed as demonstrated by recent activist efforts to stall the tar sands and the fracking of the Delaware River.

So here are the three things, people can do:

1. All Americans can call President Obama and ask him to ban fracking in the Delaware River and support bringing fracking under regular EPA standards, rather than exempting this new process.

2. New Yorkers can attend public meetings scheduled by the NY Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) this week in New York City and upstate:

11/29 Sullivan County Community College, Seelig Theatre, 112 College Road, Loch Sheldrake

11/30 Tribeca Performing Arts Center, 199 Chambers Street, New York, NY

3. Public comment on the DEC guidelines remains open until December 12th and can be made herehere.

"There's so much we don't know about what happens under ground, so let's not open Pandora's Box," Steingrabber urges.

You can learn more about Sandra Steingraber and her books at her Website.

For health and environmental radio programs, blogs, and actions, please sign up at Health Journalist and you can follow me on Twitter @AlisonRoseLevy on Facebook, and here on HuffPost.

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