AUBURN — City Councilor Matthew Smith surprised many residents Thursday when he asked City Manager Douglas Selby to draft a resolution lifting the city’s seven-month-old ban on treating wastewater produced by natural gas drilling.
Smith said the ban was “nothing but a waste of time and cost taxpayers a considerable amount of money.”
The council approved the ban 3-1, with Smith dissenting, after a rally on the steps of City Hall that drew more than 100 demonstrators and dozens of public speakers at council meetings who spoke of the ill effects of the treatment practice.
Smith disagreed Thursday, saying the wastewater trucked in for nearly 15 years has not harmed the city’s treatment plant or the water quality in the Owasco River where the plant discharges.
Asking for an information session outlining the treatment procedure before next week’s vote, Smith said treatment plant officials would “vehemently give their opinions,” regarding the ill-advised moratorium.
Vicky Murphy, Auburn’s director of Municipal Utilities, refrained Friday from voicing her opinion on the matter, but said the city’s plant is able to safely handle the drilling water.
“We legally can take it, however we need to do another pretreatment analysis before we do,” she said. “We won’t take anything in until that gets done.”
Murphy explained that for years the city has charged natural gas companies to treat the water produced as a by-product of drilling.
Local officials said that the handful of companies that contracted for the service drill mostly vertical wells in sandstone and limestone, differentiated from the highly-politicized process of high-volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing in the Marcellus Shale, commonly known as hydrofracking.
Citing state and local policies, Murphy said the Auburn plant does not accept horizontal hydraulic fracturing water.
Terry Cuddy, a founder of the Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance, maintained that water from any well should stay out of the treatment plant.
“It’s not made to handle natural gas drilling water, it’s designed to handle sewage,” he said. “They’re putting the wastewater treatment plant at risk in the interest of generating more money.”
Cuddy said the revenue loss of $600,000 often repeated by city officials was a misrepresentation, saying business was declining in the months leading up to the ban and the city itself asked the drilling companies to stop bringing water after failing sampling tests.
Murphy said pretreatment tests showed the companies were exceeding the allowable levels of barium, zinc and iron, and asked to stop bringing water until the levels could be dropped.
“We have to follow the EPA’s regulations, which are pretty stringent,” she said. “Every year one or two of our industrial customers have been out of compliance, but you only hear about the wells when it happens.”
Murphy said the companies might have been able to correct the problem, but the ban was enacted the next month.
After the negative attention, Murphy said she doubts if the companies will reform business ties with Auburn, even if the ban is lifted.
“I just don’t think they’re going to come back,” she said. “We talked with one after the ban, who said they didn’t want the publicity. We haven’t talked with the others, but we heard some were exploring taking the water to another plant for treatment.”
Murphy said after the ban, representatives of Oswego and Fulton contacted the city asking for the names of the developers in hopes of capturing their business.
“If it comes back, we’ll be careful to follow all the rules,” she said. “We’re ready if it does come.”
Staff writer Nathan Baker can be reached at 282-2238 or email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter at CitizenBaker.