Postcard from Marcellus, NY
Residents Worry about How Fracking Could Affect their Town
It was tradition at my high school for graduating students to jump off the hills behind the old, worn-out mill and plunge into Nine-Mile Creek. In the spring the flaky stone mounds were smoothed by runoff that rushed into a gentle waterfall, making for a perfect swimming hole. I used to think the biggest problem with this place was the broken glass dumped by careless partiers; never in my life had I been more wrong.
Photo by Jill Reed
When the crowds cheered and the tassel on my head flipped to the right, I left my hometown to study Environmental Studies and Natural Resource Sustainability in the Adirondack Mountains at Paul Smith’s College. I never thought that my career choice would force me to go back and try to protect that simple ridge, the water flowing over it, and my friends swimming at its banks. You see, I am from the town of Marcellus, NY home of the infamous shale.
In recent years, the words “Marcellus Shale” have become as politically charged as the term climate change. The Marcellus Shale is a geological formation rich in natural gas. The fossil fuel is extracted from it through a process known as hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. The drilling method pumps pressurized, chemical-laden water into the ground and forces the gas from air pockets between the rocks. The natural gas leaves the well mixed with the water, and is separated at the surface. The formation – which stretches from southwestern New York into Pennsylvania, Ohio, and West Virginia – was named for my hometown in central New York because the shale comes to the surface here and forms steep ledges on Slate Hill.
New York State has in place a moratorium on shale gas drilling. Earlier this month, news broke that Governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration is considering a compromise under which counties in the southwestern part of the state would be open to fracking while much of New York – including the Catskills and the area that covers New York City’s water supply – would be off-limits. The continuing uncertainty has many upstate New Yorkers nervous. “I am deeply concerned the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and Governor Cuomo will allow hydrofracking,” says Cheryl Spada, a graduate student in Education at Syracuse University and Marcellus resident.
For most people, the Marcellus Shale is a geologic abstraction. In the town of Marcellus, NY (population: 1,800) the term has a physical presence and meaning. The shale is a reddish-brown rock that stacks up along the roadsides and creates the walls that enclose the valley where the village lies. It’s flaky, fragile, often crumbling, and cradles enormous ice sheets in the winter. It forms cascades in Nine-Mile Creek and encases the quiet lakes from which we drink. Runoff from the hills often floods the village in the spring. With the prospect of natural gas drilling coming to the area, some Marcellus-area residents are afraid that toxic water from the wells could contaminate the local water supply. “We need to protect our amazing water resources that we are so lucky to have in Marcellus,” Spada says.
In addition to the usual concerns about fracking – such as methane leakage, improper disposal of the wastewater post-drilling, and the annoyances of heavy industry – Marcellus residents are also worried that fracking here could lead to increased exposure to radon. Radon is a radioactive and carcinogenic gas that occurs from the decay of elements within soil and stone. The US EPA has designated Onondaga County, which includes the town of Marcellus, as a high-risk area for radon exposure because the shale deposits lie closer to the surface.
The Marcellus Shale is naturally radioactive due to the air pockets that accumulate radon gas between the shale sheets. The gas tends to seep into basements and crawl spaces of homes and can cause serious illnesses such as lung cancer in people who are exposed to it. One of the most dangerous traits of the gas is its ability to stick to other particles, sort of like freshly spit gum on the bottom of a shoe. So if chemically laced water is pumped through these radioactive air bubbles, the radon can attach to that water, just as extracted natural gas does. The wastewater is left in pits to evaporate, while sprinkler systems spray the water into the sunlight to speed up the process. When radon gas is sprayed into air, it can stick to the air particles that we breathe.
Despite opposition to drilling by environmentalists and concerned residents, fracking advocates say that they have improved the safety and pollution control of this process over time. “We use the latest horizontal and directional drilling technologies to position wells at a safe distance from homes, schools and businesses as specified in applicable laws and regulations,” Chesapeake Energy, a major gas drilling company, says on its website. “Despite the fact that there is virtually no risk that the mixture can escape from the targeted zone, it is important to consistently ensure that our daily operations are as environmentally conscious as possible.”
A skeptical public sometimes dismisses statements like these, arguing that the risks are simply too significant. Some people in Marcellus feel that bringing the practice to the area would make this charming countryside an undesirable place to live. “I wouldn’t want to live here [if drilling were allowed],” says Jenna Dedonato, a Community Health student at Onondaga Community College and lifetime Marcellus resident. “It feels like an invasion,” she says.
The 2005 Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from complying with the Safe Drinking Water Act and that exemption is worrisome to many people. The Marcellus are is home to the City of Syracuse and Onondaga County drinking water supplies, Skaneateles and Otisco Lakes. If shale gas exploitation were let loose in the area, what would become of these lakes, people wonder. After all, in areas with heavy fracking, like Pennsylvania, some homeowners can ignite their kitchen faucets due to the methane in the water. Some people complain of mysterious illnesses.
“Wouldn’t it be ignorant to think it wouldn’t happen here?,” says Spada, who has studied Environmental and Forest Biology, and has worked as a naturalist and environmental educator. “We are being lobbied by an industry that stands to make untold profits. Of course they are going to make it seem like it’s not a potentially harmful practice.” She does not believe natural gas can be safely extracted. “I’ve read the [New York Department of Environmental Conservation’s] Environmental Impact Assessment on this issue. I still don’t feel it’s safe for our environment or for our health or our future generations.”
During the last decade, much of the land in the Town of Marcellus (as well as neighboring Otisco and Onondaga) was leased to hydrofracking companies. Even school districts have leased their property to gas companies in order to fill budget gaps. Land surrounding and possibly including my own high school appears on a map of leased lands.
This enrages some parents and taxpayers. “This would be completely unfair to us,” Dedonato says. Although education funding is so tight that many crucial programs are being eliminated, a line must be drawn somewhere when it comes to scraping up money from other sources. “Where does this stop?” Spada asked. Many landowners have tried to get out of their leases once they learned of the potential environmental and health problems associated with the extraction.
After holding several public meetings, the Town of Marcellus has established a moratorium prohibiting exploration for natural gas extraction in the area until January 2013. Last month, the neighboring Town of Skaneateles enacted a ban on the practice under its zoning policies. Although a victory for those concerned with the risks of the practice, some landowners in other townships feel their land use rights have been violated.
The property behind my family’s home – a mix of farmland, rough woods, and abandoned attempts at development – also appears on a map of leased lands. My mother and life-long Marcellus resident, Wendy Coleates, was not pleased with the discovery. “We live downhill from that land,” she says. Since moving to our current home, we have constantly been improving our three-quarters of an acre. We dug a mud-bottom pond for drainage, which now sustains populations of fish, frogs, snakes, and the occasional Great Blue Heron. More than 20 trees have been carefully planted amid flower gardens and herb spirals. This year, veggie gardens, swales, and hardy conifers are on the to-do list. “What will become of our ponds, our gardens, our attempts at greening up our little slice of this world?” my mother asks. It is difficult to grasp that the tattered clearing we used for go-carts and stick forts could potentially become a gas drilling pad.
Marcellus is my home; it is the place that built my love, appreciation, and respect for nature and the environment. It’s strange to think that, just years ago, the shale hills surrounding the village were nothing more than a perch for a view of farm fields and Finger Lakes – and that now they are eyed by fossil fuel companies. Beneath the shale ledges lies something so valuable that the right to clean water, air, and soil could become collateral damage. I never thought that this tiny village of corn, cows, and shale would be in the midst of a war over ancient gas pockets – a war that it is my duty to become a part of.
Heather Coleates grew up in Marcellus, NY rescuing animals and exploring nature. She is currently a sophomore at Paul Smith's College, majoring in Environmental Studies. A version of this article originally appeared on the college’s environmental blog.