The Threat to New York's Drinking Water

06/09/2010 02:16 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The tragic images of dying, oil-drenched animals and the underwater spew in the Gulf are sickening. They make us feel ashamed to be human, certainly ashamed to be driving our cars.
There is one upside to the unfolding disaster, though: at least we don't have to drink it.
The Delaware River, in upstate New York, provides drinking water for 17 million people. If drillers get their way, as they inexorably will, it too will eventually fill up with toxins as a result of the world's insatiable desire for fossil fuel.

The beautiful Upper Delaware, home to recently resurgent families of bald eagle, and trout, shad, bobcat and bear, as well as homo sapiens, happens to sit on top of one of the greatest underground natural gas reserves in the country, the Marcellus Shale.

Geologists have known for a long time that there's gas in the Shale, which stretches from Canada to Maryland. Until recently, engineers had no way to get down to it, because it's miles under the earth's crust.

Enter Halliburton and other big energy companies with some advanced technology that uses a mixture of undisclosed toxic chemicals and millions of gallons of water to produce small underground earthquakes to free up the liquid gold.

The new process is called "fracking," short for fracturing.

Drillers have assured communities in Texas and Colorado that fracking is quite safe, but fracked communities now have poisoned wells and chemically tainted water drying in great cesspools. Communities have also claimed ill health effects.

My house in the economically straitened area along the river in upstate New York overlooks the Upper Delaware River. For the last few years, our community has been at war with itself, as energy companies sent representatives door to door, offering large sums to landholders who will lease their land to be fracked.

Landowners - some of them genuinely down on their luck dairy farmers, others already land-rich and just dreaming of retiring to Vegas - are cashing in left and right.

The state environmental protection agency in Pennsylvania, which lies on the western banks of the river, have looked the other way as landholders signed thousands of leases and drillers have opened up test wells without the least semblance of regulation. One of our neighbors recently allowed that he didn't have to file word of his lease and the upcoming "test" drilling on his property because he'd cut "a handshake deal."

New York regulators have been a little more rigorous, but a flurry of improvements on old roads in the area and the creation of a giant new pipeline are not-so-subtle signs that the energy companies know their path is clear.

On Monday, the conservation group American Rivers designated the Upper Delaware as the Number One Most Endangered River in the nation. At the Narrowsburg, New York, press conference announcing this, Pennsylvania landholders with leases, apparently taking a cue from last summer's town hall bullies, showed up and disrupted the proceedings.

A film about the disaster in the making will be shown on HBO on June 21. A memorable scene in Gasland, by young filmmaker and Upper Delaware resident Josh Fox shows what happens to his neighbor's drinking water after a test well is fracked open on his neighbor's land. The owner can literally light his kitchen tap water with a match.

One would think the Gulf disaster would slightly dampen enthusiasm for testing new and extremely violent forms of fossil fuel extraction in sensitive areas like the watershed for New York's drinking water.

Think again.

Sarah Palin, speaking for the Drill Baby Drill crowd, has blamed those who oppose land drilling in sensitive areas for the ruination of the Gulf of Mexico.

Talk about blaming the victim.

In the end, it's all about the car, isn't it? In 500 years, if the human race survives that long, our descendants will marvel at the way we poisoned our environment with fossil fuels, gave our kids asthma, grew obese behind the wheel, the same way we marvel at the self-defeating practices of medieval people who couldn't understand that the Black Plague was carried by fleas. The trouble is those poor folks had an excuse: They didn't know any better.
Sadly, we do.