Officials Concerned Over Natural Gas Drilling in Catskills Region

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City officials are expressing sharp disagreement with Albany over the issue of natural gas drilling in the city's Catskill Mountains watershed. They say a plan to allow drilling there would leave the city's reservoirs vulnerable to chemical spills. WNYC's Ilya Marritz is following the story.

REPORTER: Manhattan Borough President Scott Stringer says he's worried about the water New Yorkers drink.

STRINGER: today the water is so clean we don't even need to filter it. But drilling for natural gas in the watershed with a drilling technique called hydraulic fracturing will change that.

REPORTER: Hydraulic fracturing is a relatively new technique, it uses high volumes of water and chemicals to blast natural gas out of rock. It's generally safe, but there have been contamination problems in Louisiana, Pennsylvania, and Texas. Stringer says there should be a ban on all hydrofracking near reservoirs.

But late on Wednesday, the Department of Environmental Conservation in Albany took a different position. The DEC published an environmental review spelling out precautions it says will make hydrofracking safe. Even near water bodies.

Tom West, an Albany lawyer representing natural gas companies, read the 800 page document in less than 24 hours.

WEST: my take on this is the department has done a very thorough job and set a very high environmental bar.

REPORTER: For example, drillers will have to get approval for all the chemicals they plan to use. And the DEC has identified common additives like Benzene and Toluene as health hazards.

The agency is also setting strict guidelines for handling waste water - it must be temporarily stored in steel tanks, and removed quickly from the drill site to an approved treatment plant.

Tom West says, with this environmental review, New York is asking drillers to jump through a lot more hoops than any other state.

WEST: I'm sure there will be some operators who choose to do business elsewhere because it will be less costly for them.

REPORTER: But Scott Stringer calls what the DEC is proposing mere "half-measures". Even if the risk is small, he says a chemical spill could be catastrophic. Not only to public health, but to the city budget.

STRINGER: if that happens, the federal government will order us to build water filtration plants, that will result in NYC having to spend billions of dollars we simply don't have.

REPORTER: This week Stringer and other officials from city and state government launched a Kill The Drill Campaign. They're calling on Mayor Bloomberg to join them.

On Thursday, the Mayor praised natural gas as a fuel that pollutes less than coal or oil. But then he said this.

BLOOMBERG: if this has the danger of polluting, we will fight it.

REPORTER: One study estimates hydraulic fracturing in New York could eventually produce revenues of more than $300 billion. After a moratorium of more than a year, many upstate landowners are eager for drilling to begin.

There's now a 60 day public comment period on the DEC's proposals for regulating gas drilling. Industry and environmentalists say they're reading, and re-reading this document, very closely. For WNYC, I'm Ilya Marritz.