A group of local residents concerned about natural gas drilling issues will gather next week to raise their voices at city hall in Auburn.
The Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance is organizing a rally planned for 4 p.m. on Thursday, June 2 to publically call on the Auburn City Council to ban the acceptance of any water at the city’s sewage treatment plant that comes from natural gas exploration. The plant is one of the only remaining public plants in the state to accept natural gas well water.
The alliance wants the rally to increase pressure on the city council to make a decision before the next fiscal year. And organizers say they are receiving inquiries from other groups and advocates outside of the area expressing interest in the rally.
“The reality is we’re not pleased with this practice, and we want it to stop,” said Terry Cuddy, a founder of the group. “We’re very direct in our request and in asking our officials to listen.”
The group recently presented the city council with a petition signed by about 500 people calling for the city to stop taking the gas well water. City officials have discussed the issue a little bit, and members of the council have said they want to organize a forum dedicated specifically to this before making any decision.
Cuddy said the local group wants quicker action. The fiscal year begins in July, and the city council will likely vote on the next budget within a month. Because the city has made hundreds of thousands of dollars annually from the well water, Cuddy said a decision to stop should come before the budget is complete.
“That’s why we’re pressing this now. ... I want them to see that this is bigger than the budget,” he said.
The city’s wastewater treatment plant has been accepting water from natural gas wells for decades. But the issue of natural gas exploration has become the focus of heated debate as the state drafts regulations on gas drilling.
A large part of that debate is over a relatively new drilling method known as horizontal hydraulic fracturing. Known to many as “fracking,” the process uses large volumes of water and chemicals to extract much more gas than previous drilling methods. The process has also led to environmental concerns, as environmental advocates say it pollutes the surrounding watersheds and water tables.
Under both local and state policies, the Auburn plant does not accept water from horizontal fracking wells. It also does not allow water from the Marcellus Shale formation, where much of this drilling is taking place.
Water treated at the Auburn plant discharges into the Owasco River.
Local officials say the water allowed in Auburn comes from vertical wells, mostly drilled in sandstone and limestone rock. And while the water has a high salt content, local and state officials have said that water does not contain as high levels of hydrocarbons, heavy metals and naturally occurring radioactive materials as horizontal Marcellus wells.
City officials have also said in recent months that the city is seeing lower volumes of water coming to the plant from fewer companies.
Auburn’s plant is currently one of only two public plants in the state that treats any well water, according to the DEC. A plant in the village of Sherburne also treats vertical drilling water, according to the DEC.
Bruce Natale, chairman of the County Water Quality Management Agency, disagrees with the Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance’s call to lower that number to one. On Tuesday, he said such a move would have unintended bad consequences.
Natale pointed out that there are more than 300 natural gas wells in Cayuga County alone and thousands around the state formed by vertical drilling. He said the natural gas produced even helps local business, as multiple large manufacturers located here because of the availability of local gas.
The people protesting Auburn’s current policy “do not see the distinction” between water coming out of the Marcellus Shale wells and the water currently coming to Auburn, Natale said.
“That is a completely different operation,” he said. “There are thousands of wells producing clean natural gas from sandstone and limestone.”
Natale said he believes two things could happen if plants like Auburn’s stop taking the water – it will either be spread untreated on roads in the winter to melt ice, or companies will use more deep, underground injection wells.
“This is the treatment option with the lowest and most controlled environmental impact,” he said. “The other two both have big unknowns.”
The Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance maintains that the city shouldn’t take any water, and members have questioned the drilling companies’ willingness to follow regulations. In March, multiple companies were cited by the city for failing to follow reporting rules.
And the founder of an Ithaca environmental watchdog organization is voicing concerns to the state about the Auburn plant, saying treatment facilities like this are not designed to handle any sort of natural gas well water.
Walter Hang, who runs toxicstargeting.com, said regulators really can’t know what’s in the water with the testing they currently conduct. Hang also said there is “no meaningful distinction” between the brine coming out of New York wells and Marcellus wells, as the water still contains what he said are high levels of harmful substances.
“It’s all unable to be handled by a local treatment plant,” Hang said.
Because Auburn is one of the remaining plants, he said he expects it to receive more attention as the debate over natural gas drilling continues around the state.
“I think this is going to be where that issue is settled for good or ill,” Hang said.
Staff writer Christopher Caskey can be reached at 282-2282 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenCaskey.