Our Drinking Water Under Siege

New York's drinking water, pristine, untreated, and delicious, is the envy of the world; but 90% of our supply sits in the watershed to the northwest of the city, atop gas-rich rock formations that are seen as a viable solution to our energy dependence on oil. The prospects for pollution and contamination of our water supply, in an effort to get to the gas, are real and dangerous.

In New York and across the country, hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracking) is used to access underground natural gas deposits. The process involves shooting a highly pressurized stream of water, sand, and toxic chemicals deep into the ground to open up existing fractures in the bedrock and interconnect with other nearby fissures. Halliburton, the energy company that former Vice President Dick Cheney used to run, is the industry leader in hydraulic fracturing. According to a Denver Post article reprinted in the Houston Chronicle, the Houston-based Halliburton and other energy companies enjoyed great support in the Bush White House and the Republican-controlled congress. The 2003 article reported that "After Cheney took office and chaired the White House energy task force, his final report touted hydraulic fracturing as a way to deliver more clean-burning natural gas to the nation.... It left out any potential environmental hazards." Hydrofracking was exempted from the Safe Drinking Water Act moving through Congress then and passed in 2005. Therefore it is not regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and states vary in how they address the issue.

According to a 2008 article in Scientific American, the Bureau of Land Management suspects that about 300 chemical compounds are involved in hydrofracking. Of that number, 65 are considered hazardous by the federal government. Many of the other compounds have not been studied. Halliburton won't say what chemicals are being used. Industry officials say there's no proof that hydraulic fracturing endangers drinking water; but they have provided no documentation that it doesn't.

Hydrofracking has already been linked to contaminated drinking water around the country. Chemicals such as benzene, fluoride, and 2-BE have been linked to instances of leukemia, failure of organs and reproductive systems, and rare tumors. In addition, a 2004 study by the Environmental Protection Agency found that the fluids used in hydrofracking migrated unpredictably through different rock layers and that certain chemicals were likely to remain underground and be transported by groundwater.

Despite this, the Energy Policy Act of 2005 created a loophole in the Safe Drinking Water Act exempting hydrofracking from the Underground Injection Control program. In other words, despite not really knowing what chemicals are being used and despite strong correlative evidence linking hydrofracking with polluted drinking water, there are no regulations in place to govern the use of the process, even when it is near a major urban watershed. In addition, there is no research on the effects of hydrofracking in shale formations, which are where our water comes from and where the hydrofracking would take place in New York if proposed drilling isn't checked. Using untested, potentially dangerous chemicals near our watershed is a huge gamble.

To be sure, there are those who say our energy crisis compels us to harvest as much natural gas as possible to help meet our energy needs in order to limit or dependence on foreign oil. But if the goal is to make us less reliant on oil, achieving that goal shouldn't come at the expense of our precious water supply. Additionally, we should be focusing on job creation and economic development through investment in sustainable energies like solar, tidal, and wind.

A series of reports by ProPublica in the past year found water contamination across the country in areas where drilling takes place. This has led to scrutiny by Congress, where the House and Senate recently introduced twin bills to amend the 2005 Act and give the Environmental Protection Agency authority over hydrofracking.

On July 29th, I introduced a resolution in the New York City Council, calling on Congress to pass the Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act of 2009 (the FRAC Act) to protect our drinking water from hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking.

The FRAC Act would apply stringent regulations to protect drinking water supplies from any risk due to hydrofracking. The legislation would not end drilling for natural gas, nor would it ban the practice of hydrofracking. What it would do is ensure that our supply of drinking water is protected from harmful pollutants, and it would limit hydrofracking to areas where it cannot contaminate a supply of drinking water.

The oil and gas industry has deployed its powerful lobbyists. I am calling on Congress to protect this vital resource.