Trading the Watershed to Trash the Catskills

Aerial photographs of land surrounding the millennium pipeline north of Sullivan County, NY show sweeping tracts of largely unspoiled forest. They are ecologically important for several species including neo-tropical migrant birds that travel from South America to breeding habitats in the northern latitudes, bald eagles, and the endangered timber rattlesnake. Some of the best soils in the state are also nearby and dairy farms have dotted the landscape since the mid 1800s, perhaps even longer. To the north and east of Sullivan County, the Catskill Park, established in the late 19th century, contains large parcels of undisturbed forest. “It is an incredibly pristine landscape,” Wes Gillingham, Program Director of Catskill Mountainkeeper told me recently.

But that landscape is about to change, its future in the hands of oil and gas companies that have leased thousands of acres of land to drill in the Marcellus Shale. They will soon own most of the mineral rights beneath the farmland and forests and drilling will probably begin before next summer. In the town of Hancock, NY, which is strategically located on the Delaware River and near the millennium pipeline, 25,000 acres of land have been leased. One well, and there will likely be hundreds drilled in Hancock, requires between 1,500,000 to 9,000,000 gallons of water. Heavy truck traffic, noise, air and light pollution will become part of every day life. As one observer recently noted, drilling in the Marcellus Shale is “perhaps the largest rural land issue that we’ve ever been faced with in upstate New York.” And much of the concern centers on the question of water; where it will come from, how it will be stored and treated, and what will happen if spills or accidents contaminate the ground water or nearby rivers and streams. The Delaware River provides water to many upstate towns in the Catskills as well as the metropolitan areas of Philadelphia and Trenton. Roughly 16 million people depend on the river basin—its streams, rivers, reservoirs, and aquifers—for their drinking water.

I visited Gillingham last Wednesday before the first public hearing on the DEC’s 809 page environmental review that sets out regulatory guidelines for drilling in New York State. That same morning Chesapeake Energy Corporation, the largest leaseholder in the Marcellus Shale, announced that it would forgo drilling within New York City’s watershed. The company’s chief executive said in a press release that the issue had become a “needless distraction” and that since Chesapeake is the only leaseholder in the watershed area they are “uniquely positioned to take this issue off the table.”

And of course it is in their interest to take the issue off the table. Unlike rural areas throughout the country that have already been deeply impacted by natural gas drilling, from Wyoming to Pennsylvania, the possibility that New York City’s unfiltered water might be at risk hasn’t been good for the industry’s image. “Why go through the brain damage” of drilling in the watershed, Chesapeake’s CEO told the New York Times. But residents of Sullivan County, who turned out in large numbers for the only public hearing in the critical Delaware River Watershed weren’t exactly charmed by the company’s move and are afraid that brain damage, in the form of toxic chemicals used to fracture the shale might await them. When Scott Rotruck, the Vice President for Corporate Development at Chesapeake made his five minute presentation and emphatically declared that the company won’t be drilling in the NYC watershed residents cried, “what about us.”

“I wish I was in the New York City watershed,” Cindy Gieger, a candidate for Town Council in Callicoon told me. “At least they have some kind of protection. We don’t have any.”

For residents upstate there are questions about how the state will deal with accidents or spills, whether flood prone areas will be exempt from drilling, if roads and bridges are up to the task of accommodating heavy truck traffic, and whether local economies will really benefit. “The issue is bigger than the NYC watershed. It’s as big as the Marcellus Shale fairway,” Deputy Director of Delaware Riverkeeper Tracy Carluccio said before the hearing. There are a couple of ways to read the Chesapeake decision: as a PR move announced on the day of the first public hearing or as an admission that the drilling process is far too risky to tamper with the politically sensitive New York City watershed. Imagine having to provide the city’s 9 million residents with bottled water if something went wrong. Though the company’s decision has been praised by most environmental organizations, Gillingham says it doesn’t really change the overall picture and that Chesapeake is “acting like it’s trading the watershed to trash the Catskills.” Rotruck of course sees it differently. Before the hearing got underway he told me it was purely a business decision and that drilling in the watershed was “immaterial.”

Upstate communities are hardly greeting the prospect of gas drilling with open arms. Gieger, in her bid for Town Council, has visited hundreds of local residents most of whom are opposed to drilling. And it makes sense. Very few people in the rural townships own large tracts of land and hundreds of acres are required for exploratory drilling. So they’ll reap all of the negative side effects—truck traffic, air, light and noise pollution and possible groundwater contamination—with few if any benefits. The idea that farmers will be saved and dying towns revived is often viewed as nothing more than salesmanship. Farmers who lease their land are more likely to retire (most are in their late fifties already) than continue to work 14-hour days in a depressed market. That may be their wish and they will do with their land as they please, but it is folly to imagine that gas drilling will somehow save small farmers. Farms, already in decline, will disappear. In fifteen years, when the gas has been sucked out of the ground (it is a non-renewable resource) there may be few farms left and who knows what the land will look like. Some of the best soils are found in Beechwoods. A farmer there recently leased 2,500 acres to pay off his mortgage. According to an acquaintance he had a few bucks left over.

Last year was one of the worst in recent memory for dairy farmers. The price of milk was close to what it was in the 1970s and yet the cost of fuel and feed continues to rise. If farmers could make a living on their land maybe they’d hold onto it. But for now it’s the money that talks and land that was being leased for $25 an acre in some parts of the state and in Pennsylvania four years ago is now fetching more than $6,000. “The money’s the one that talks,” a longtime dairy farmer told me. “That’s what worries me.”

ADAM FEDERMAN is a contributing writer to Earth Island Journal, where this article originally appeared. His last article for the magazine was on illegal logging in Siberia. He can be reached at: adamfederman@gmail.com




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Adam Federman is a contributing editor at Earth Island Journal.He is the recipient of a Polk Grant for Investigative Reporting, a Middlebury Fellowship in Environmental Journalism, and a Russia Fulbright Fellowship. You can find more of his work at adamfederman.com.

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