By Innovation Trail's Zack Seward
The Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) held the first of four public hearings on hydrofracking Wednesday. More than 800 people descended on the vacant Dansville Middle School to rally both for and against the controversial natural gas drilling technique.
Anti-fracking advocates outnumbered pro-drilling voices by a roughly 80/20 split. Many pro-drilling speakers were booed by the crowd, while anti-drilling speakers earned hearty applause.
The speakers who signed up first were predominantly pro-fracking.
Jason Ballard of Lindley, N.Y. - about two miles north of the Pennsylvania border - urged the DEC to act quickly.
"Our communities in the state of New York, we are running on fumes," said Ballard. "We are sitting on a tank - a full tank, one of the biggest in the world - and I would just ask that you move forward with this."
Ballard was among a number of pro-drilling Southern Tier farmers and landowners who spoke during the afternoon session of the public hearing. He and others urged the DEC to finalize their permitting regulations so that New York landowners and communities could reap the same economic benefits as those in Pennsylvania.
But Ballard was definitely in the minority.
Most people in attendance voiced strong opposition to high-volume hydraulic fracturing in New York State. Ken Zeserson, a member of the Ulysses, N.Y. planning board (which recently banned fracking), told DEC regulators that anti-fracking advocates would continue their fight.
"You are sacrificing our environment and our local economies on an altar of greed," said Zeserson. "We will fight you in the courts, we will fight you in the legislatures, we will confront you in the streets - until you realize you cannot hydrofrack in the Finger Lakes."
Zeserson and others expressed health, environmental and economic concerns. Many anti-drilling speakers took issue with, what they say, is an overly-optimistic economic impact section of the DEC's latest draft SGEIS.
The DEC tells the Innovation Trail that it's extending the hearing for another hour (until 10 p.m.) to accommodate the more than 150 people who signed up to speak. Each speaker is allotted no more than three minutes. As of 7:45 p.m., DEC officials say they've gotten through about 95 people.
(Thursday 1:10 p.m. UPDATE: A DEC spokeswoman tells the Innovation Trail a total of about 270 people signed up to speak. That accounts for both the afternoon and evening sessions. In all, the DEC says 154 people actually spoke at the Dansville hearing. That's about 57 percent of those who signed up. "Everyone who was still at the meeting and wanted to speak was able to," the DEC's Emily DeSantis says via email. "Many left before their name was called.")
The agency is holding another public hearing at the Forum Theatre in Binghamton on Thursday.
A number of anti-fracking advocates at Wednesday's Dansville hearing said they expect Binghamton to have a much larger turnout.
The Dansville hearing mobilized advocacy groups on both sides of the issue. A pro-drilling group purchased a truck billboard that was circling the middle school early in the day. A video crew associated with the American Petroluem Institute was filming interviews.
Before the hearing, a number of anti-fracking groups led a press conference at an adjacent soccer field. The anti-fracking advocates expressed a range of opposition to the drilling technique: from the need for more study, to an outright ban, to the criminalization of the practice.
The DEC is collecting public comments on its latest draft of hydrofracking regulations until December 12. DEC representatives say no additional weight will be given to oral comments as opposed to those filed online.