By MINDA RAE AMIRAN
The current moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking of gas wells in New York state finds citizens fairly evenly divided on whether the process should be allowed. But there is no division on the proposition that contaminated wastes from the process must be prevented from poisoning the water sources on which our lives depend.
In Chautauqua County, where so much of the economy is based on tourism, fishing, attendance at the Chautauqua Institution and dairy farming, preserving our lakes, streams, springs, and wells is a top priority.
Accordingly, The League of Women Voters was astonished to learn that the county has issued overweight permits to let a hydrofracking operation in Pennsylvania transport wastewater over our county roads from one site to another in Pennsylvania.
Upon inquiring of Chautauqua County Executive Greg Edwards' office, we were told that the county's income from the permits would repair any damage to our roads from the heavy vehicle traffic, and also that Julius Leone, the county emergency services director, had been notified to prepare remedies in case of spills.
These responses seem entirely inadequate to us. The Times Observer of Warren, Pa., which reported the permits on Feb. 21, quoted the fracking operation's president Karl Kimmich as expecting eight to 10 truckloads a day to pass over the roads.
We don't know how accurate this projection may be, but even if the eight to 10 trips are made by eight to 10 trucks, at $250 a year per truck the total doesn't seem to result in nearly enough money to make any substantial repairs. The county overweight charge of $250 a year is the figure named to us by the county Public Facilities Department. The roads involved are reported to be County Road 33 to Panama Rocks and Weeks Road to Columbus Township, Pa. The unaccustomed weight of wastewater trucks on these roads is sure to damage them over the life of the operation.
But paying for any needed repairs is the least of it. What of the potential for spills into creeks or ponds or for seepage into the water table under a field by the side of the road? Accidents to heavy trucks on wet or icy roads are scarcely unheard of in our area, and we have been told of incidents in which tired or uncaring truckers have simply dumped their loads into any nearby stream. With the best of intentions and abilities, Mr. Leone can do nothing to prevent such accidents or misdemeanors, and it's hard to see what he could do to clean polluted water that had seeped into a field or stream. Especially since the chemicals used in the fracking water are classed as trade secrets: we don't even know what they are.
To make matters worse, we have learned that the wastewater carried over our roads is to be poured into two disused 30 year-old gas wells in the community of Bear Lake, Pa. It seems there are homes with children bordering on the dumping area and some of those homes are actually in state.
The EPA has permitted the use of the now refurbished wells for waste disposal, over the protests of residents of Bear Lake, who petitioned unsuccessfully for two years to prevent the decision. These residents are on record as fearing the old wells may leak and they're worried that their water supply will be polluted. So must we be: there is nothing to stop the wastewater from seeping into Chautauqua County from just across our border.
We have heard that Mr. Edwards says he had no choice but to issue the permits once transport of the waste had been approved. But the EPA approval of the Bear Lake wells cannot affect transport in Chautauqua County, and New York's DEC doesn't govern transport of hazardous materials through New York from one out-of-state place to another. So it's not clear what permit is involved.
The proposed fracking safeguards now under moratorium give counties the sole authority to decide on the use of their roads, showing the state's current thinking on this problem. And if Mr. Edwards now has the authority to issue overweight trucking permits, why has he no authority not to issue such permits?
Pending information to the contrary, we call on him to retract the permits. We also call on him to refrain from taking such actions in future without open discussion in the Legislature and without consulting the public.
Minda Rae Amiran is a Fredonia resident and member of the League of Women Voters Chautauqua County.