Key Deadline Looms as Progress of Fracking Review Is Murky

The state’s environmental commissioner for the first time commented in depth about a new health review that has once again delayed a decision on hydro fracking in New York.

Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens said the agency now has additional information on the health impact of exposure to chemicals used in fracking and possible air pollution from generator and pump emissions.

But the data cannot be released until the health commissioner finishes his review.

Martens issued a statement in late September saying the state’s Health Commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, would conduct a review of health impact data compiled by the Department of Environmental Conservation.  

He said he didn’t know when that would happen. But under the new plan, Shah must still choose outside experts to help him, and Martens said those yet-unnamed experts haven’t signed contracts with the state to do the review.

 “It’s not 100 percent certain at this point what the exact scope is going to be,” he said.

If the whole health review process takes more than six weeks, then Martens will run up against a key November 29 deadline.  If the environmental agency does into have its rules in pace for fracking by then, then it has to start that part of the process over. That means there could be another opportunity for public comment, and more reports to be written.

Martens says he doesn’t know right now if that deadline will be missed, and cause further delays. He says it’s “to be determined.”

Some landowners with gas drilling leases are growing impatient. They protested, chanting “No more delays!” at the Capitol on October 15.

Senator Tom Libous, who represents Binghamton, in the Southern Tier region centered in the Marcellus Shale, said he is eager for fracking to begin.

“The economy of the Southern Tier and Upstate New York depends on it,” Libous said.   

Libous predicts that the “science will dictate” that it can be done safely. And he says there’s no need to drag out Shah’s health review. He says the Department of Health has been privy to that information all along.

“I think they’re well aware of what the impact is,” Libous said. “I think the studies are done.”

Martens says that’s not true.

“It’s not done because we’ve asked Dr. Shah to review it,” Martens said.  “He may come back and say ‘You need to do additional work.’”

Meanwhile, environmental groups who oppose fracking are frustrated by what they say is a the lack of transparency.

Alex Beauchamp, spokesperson for New Yorkers Against Fracking, said it doesn’t appear that the health study will be very comprehensive or independent .

“I think it’s really worrisome,” said Beauchamp, who says there’s a danger that the study could be a “sham” or a “rubber stamp.”

Cuomo, who has appointed Martens and. Shah, has made a policy of staying above the day-to-day details of the lengthy review on fracking.

“There’s politics for it, there’s politics against it,” said Cuomo. “We want to make a decision on the merits.”

Cuomo has also said the decision will be made based on “science and facts.” Right now, no one is in his administration can say exactly when all of those facts will be collected.