A proposed local law that would ban the use of production brine from natural gas extraction on Cayuga County roads will go to a public hearing at Tuesday's full county Legislature meeting.

If passed, it would ban the use of the production brine from natural gas on county roadways and the treatment of natural gas production waste in county waste facilities, punishable by an undetermined fine and/or up 30 days imprisonment.

The law is mostly targeting the liquid that comes up from the ground during the hydraulic fracturing — or hydrofracking — process.

New York currently has a moratorium on horizontal hydrofracking, and will continue to until Gov. Andrew Cuomo's administration rules on it. Cuomo has repeatedly said he will let the science dictate his decision. He has said he is waiting on a report from the state Health Department, which is following up on a 2012 report from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. 

The moratorium has no expiration date, so there's no timetable for a decision.

But that doesn't mean that byproducts from hydrofracking are being entirely kept out of the state. By applying to the New York DEC for a Beneficial Use Determination, a town or county can be approved to use production brine associated with oil and natural gas waste as a de-icing agent on roads, though often with stipulations dictated by the DEC. 

This type of ban has been a trendy law among New York counties over the past two years. Similar bans have been enacted in the nearby counties of Onondaga, Tompkins and Oneida, as well as in Suffolk, Westchester and Rockland counties downstate. 

The byproducts have also been addressed at the state level. A bill that would ban the importation of hydrofracking waste into the state was put forth in the state Senate in April, but never made it out of committee for a vote.

The Cayuga County Legislature directed County Attorney Fred Westphal to use the Onondaga and Oneida laws as a reference for a similar law in the county.

The conversation came about after concerns about the use of the salt brine on county roads were brought to the Legislature's attention by Niles resident Michael Gorr at a June meeting. Gorr asked the Legislature to consider a ban, and by a 13-2 vote, it decided to pursue it. Four months later, a draft of the law made its way to the Legislature.

The definitions section of the local law's draft note that the brine refers to fluid that returns to the surface after high volume hydraulic fracturing is complete. It also notes that the "natural gas waste" may consist of water, brine, chemical, chemical additives, naturally occurring radioactive materials, heavy metals or contaminants. 

George Wethey, the superintendent of the Cayuga County Highway Department, said the department is not currently set up to use any form of liquids. It uses a mix of road salts to combat ice buildup during winter.

The law would require any bids to maintain county roads contain a provision assuring that no materials containing natural gas waste or oil waste be used.

The concern with the materials, as expressed by Gorr back in June, was the possibility they could spread into streams and then into the county watershed. 

"Obviously no sane person would want this stuff spread on roads where it could leak into streams and water wells or onto fields that grow the foods we and our children eat everyday," Gorr said at the Legislature's June 24 meeting.

According to Philippe Vidon, an associate professor at SUNY ESF specializing in watershed hydrology and biogeochemistry, those concerns are valid. 

"Anything you put on roads will end up in streams in some way and what ends up in streams ends up in aquifers and in drinking water," Vidon said. "So to allow this type of use for these chemicals would be irresponsible."
However, Brad Gill, the executive director of the New York Independent Oil and Gas Association, said this type of production brine has been used for decades in counties in western New York. The fluid, he said, provides highway departments with a cheaper de-icing agent than road salt. 
Gill added that it's common for people to misconstrue the production brine with the actual hydrofracking fluids. He said the production brine is basically salt water, different from the chemical makeup of fluid sent into the ground during the drilling process.
"I've never seen any documented ill effects from this type of use," Gill said, pointing out that the state DEC has to approve any Beneficial Use Determination.  
The law has met some opposition in the Legislature. The resolution to set a public hearing for the law was temporarily tabled by the Ways and Means Committee in October before being brought back in the full Legislature the next week.
The concerns expressed, however, have had more to do with the wording of the law than a desire to allow the use.
Joseph Runkle, the chair of Ways and Means Committee, said at the committee's meeting on Oct. 21 that he had spoken with a county gas supplier who was concerned a provision in the law could prevent future gas exploration in the county. 

"My thinking is that the intent of this local law is strictly the application of brine onto our county roads," Runkle said at the meeting. "So my opinion is that I'm not happy with the way this local law is written. I'm all for it, but I think it needs some more revisions before we open up a vote for a public hearing."

Similarly, Legislator Hans Pecher was concerned the wording related to roads was not clear enough. 

"The way it's written, it's so broad that it tells the State of New York that they can't do what they want to do on the Thruway," Pecher said at the meeting. "We have no business doing that, we have no right to do that."

But at the full meeting the next week, it was decided by an 11-3 vote to send the law to a public hearing. Before the vote, Westphal informed the Legislature that changes could be made to the law following the meeting. Legislators Runkle, Pecher and Tucker Whitman were the three votes against.

Legislator Patrick Mahunik made the initial motion to bring the resolution for the public hearing back up for discussion. 

"That's the purpose of having the public hearing, so we can get anything that needs amending changed before the December meeting where this local law would actually be voted on," Mahunik said at the Oct. 28 meeting.

That vote would likely take place at the December full Legislature meeting, scheduled for Dec. 16. 

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Staff writer Ryan Deffenbaugh can be reached at (315) 282-2237 or Ryan.Deffenbaugh@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter @Citizen_Deff.