Coalition of Watershed Towns votes to oppose ban on hydrofracking in the NYC watershed

Unless the state Department of Environmental Conservation makes big changes to its latest draft of gas drilling regulations, New York State is on track to ban hydraulic fracturing in and around New York City's vast, unfiltered watershed. But many officials in the towns that lie within the watershed aren't happy about the ban.

On July 18, the Coalition of Watershed Towns, an organization that represents and lobbies on behalf of towns in the watershed, voted unanimously to pass a resolution opposing the ban, and asking for a seat on Governor Andrew Cuomo's newly-formed gas drilling advisory committee. The CWT took the vote in response to a letter from Delaware County supervisor James Eisel requesting their support.

Reporter J. Blake Killin covered the CWT's vote in the Daily Mail last week. From Killin's story:

There was unanimous support for Delaware County’s request while not actually taking an official position on drilling. CWT attorney Jeffrey Baker asked why there is a need for a different set of regulations if the process is considered safe for other parts of the state and is highly regulated. He noted that gas drilling was taking place many miles below ground and far away from any ground water.

“This is very much a home-rule issue,” said Baker. “Why should control be taken away from the Catskill communities?” When the Watershed Memorandum of Agreement was under discussion some 20 years ago, CWT successfully fought for the rights for individual communities to retain local zoning regulations and home rule in watershed affairs.

The New York City watershed includes land from towns in five counties. With over half of its land area inside the watershed, Delaware County is the most affected of all the watershed counties by special water-protection regulations and the city's controversial land acquisition program.

The county board has not taken any recent vote to support gas drilling in the watershed or to solicit CWT's help. Eisel, who is the supervisor of Harpersfield and chairman of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, solicited the CWT's support in a letter on Delaware County Board of Supervisors letterhead (embedded below) on July 13.

Ltr From Jim Eisel Ref Nat Gas Ban in NYC Watershed

The last time Delaware County voted to address the issue of drilling in the watershed was in December of 2009, when the board passed a resolution supporting hydrofracking in the county, and opposing separate regulations for gas drilling inside the watershed. All of the county supervisors except for Meredith's Keitha Capouya voted in favor of the resolution.

By removing the New York City watershed from the debate about gas drilling, the DEC's proposed watershed ban has made unlikely allies of two groups on opposing sides of the gas drilling issue: landowners inside the watershed who want to lease their lands, and people outside the watershed who want to see the process banned across the state.

Capouya, who has long been the only vocal opponent of hydrofracking on the Delaware County Board of Supervisors, agrees that the watershed should not be treated differently. In response to the CWT's recent vote, she writes:

I, too, believe the entire state should be treated the same in this matter, but my emphasis is slightly different.  That is, I feel that if fracking is unsafe in the NYC watershed, it is unsafe anywhere.  And I must say that I dislike profoundly the idea that I'm to be one of the guinea pigs on the 85% of the state that is open, experimentally, to fracking.

Recently, Andes supervisor Martin Donnelly -- who voted in favor of the 2009 pro-drilling resolution -- has declared publicly that he is not, and never has been, in favor of hydrofracking. In a recent town meeting in Andes, he blamed the local news media for giving people the impression that he was a supporter of gas drilling. From the Catskill Mountain News (subscription required):

Some members of the audience thought the supervisor flip-flopped on this issue. They pointed out how all but one of the 19 members of the Delaware County Board of Supervisors approved a resolution in favor of fracking. Despite skepticism voiced by members of the audience, Donnelly insisted that his position has not changed. He blamed the news media for getting it wrong.

“Because our illustrious media sees and hears what they want to hear,” he said. The question was asked, “Would the board of supervisors support the continuing study of fracking?” I said, “Yes,” but we didn’t get a chance to talk. All we did was vote. People hear what they want to hear.”

Despite Donnelly's protestations to the contrary, the 2009 resolution states clearly that the board believes that gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is an "economic opportunity with immense potential" for the county, and supports hydrofracking on the condition that the DEC "thoroughly addresses environmental concerns" through science-based regulation. The entire text of the 2009 resolution, along with the meeting minutes, is embedded below.

Delaware County Board of Supervisors -- 12.9.2009 Meeting Minutes