Protecting New York City's Water Supply from Gas Companies

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Jul 08, 2011
  • Alison Rose Levy Health, food and environmental journalist; radio host, Progressive Radio Network

New Yorkers were out in force last Tuesday to protect the purity of their legendary water. A public comment event, held downtown by the state's Department of Environmental Conservation focused on drilling in the Marcellus shale, a vast reservoir of natural gas that developers are seeking to exploit. The event was packed to the gills with people speaking passionately -- and often angrily -- about the failure of the DEC to protect the city's watershed. The drilling companies propose to use toxic chemicals to extract the gas. One of only five cities in the country that is not required to filter its water supply, New York depends on its pristine upstate watersheds and reservoirs to deliver H20 that some have said is better than anything you can buy bottled. The city has the largest unfiltered water supply in the world. According to the New York Times as well as officials speaking last night, if gas extraction fouled the watershed, estimates are that filtration would cost a staggering $10 billion dollars to start, and $100 million per year to maintain.

The Marcellus Shale

Marcellus Shale, a layer of rock deep underground, curves northward from West Virginia to the southern counties of New York State. Trapped between the layers of rock are enormous deposits of natural gas that, proponents argue, would add to energy supplies and stimulate sluggish upstate economies. But the gas is hard to get to. The process of extracting it, called "fracking," uses a mixture of sand, water, and chemicals shot into the ground at ultra high pressure. The fracking process generates millions of gallons of waste water which must then be contained and transported, creating further risks to the environment. What's more some of the chemical laden water remains in the ground -- where it can seep into groundwater. Moreover, the Marcellus Shale lies especially deep -- miles -- underground, and the fracking process would produce enormous quantities of the fluid. Escaped fluid could contaminate both the upstate region where the drilling is done, as well as seep into the area that supplies water to New York City and New Jersey. Hundreds of cases of pollution of water by fracking have been reported in other states, most recently in Pennsylvania, where drilling in this part of the shale is already under way. One company, Chesapeake Oil, recently said it has decided it will not drill in the watershed because the risks are just too great.

The Watershed

The city's watershed is a 1,900 square mile area of reservoirs and the land surrounding them in the Catskills and Delaware valley, a region spread over eight counties, but primarily within Delaware, Ulster, Greene, and Sullivan. Nine million people in New York and its suburbs rely on the watershed for their water. New York City actually owns only 10% of the watershed -- there are residents and even dairy farms within its borders -- but in recent years, has worked with upstate communities to acquire and protect land in the watershed area, to minimize development and prevent contamination by runoff.

The DEC held the hearing in order to help it decide what, if any regulations to place on the drilling, which the state has already approved.

Mayor Bloomberg has ordered a separate study of the environmental impact of the drilling, due the end of the year.

The Outcry

At the public comment, 160 people lined up to speak for five minutes each in the Stuyvesant High School auditorium on Chambers Street, and at least for the first hour, their voices -- including those of a representative of the Mayor and a member of the city council -- were emphatically opposed to drilling. As Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer put it, "We don't even let people build a house in the watershed, and now you're telling us it's okay to pour dangerous chemicals into the ground!"

Several groups present called for a ban on all drilling in New York State. One man was ejected for interrupting a representative of the DEC who was trying to speak.

The reaction from New Yorkers to this latest threat to our health from corporations who ravage our environment -- and the politicians who enable them -- was visceral. Maybe it was the realization that this time they are messing with something as basic to life and as primal as water, that for the sake of profit they are about to mess with 2/3 of what -- biologically speaking -- we're made of.

If the degree of resistance from the mayor's office on down is any indication, this time they may not have their way.

To take action, go to Catskills Citizens for Safe Energy (

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