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Defenders of the Land: Q&A with Catskill Mountainkeeper’s Kathy Nolan and Wes Gillinghamby M. R. Smith

Earlier this year, the Catskill Mountainkeeper—a not-for-profit 501c3 advocacy organization dedicated to preserving and protecting the long term health of the region’s six counties—opened its new High Peaks office in Woodstock, with Dr. Kathleen Nolan as director. Roll caught up with Nolan and Program Director Wes Gillingham for a quick chat recently, shortly after Ian Urbina’s eye-popping series in The New York Times on the natural gas harvesting technique known as hydrofracking, and the undue influence of the oil industry on research being done by the Environmental Protection Agency to determine whether or not the practice is safe.

Needless to say, Wes and Kathy had something to say about it.

How did the Catskill Mountainkeeper organization come to be? And how did you find yourself involved with it?

Wes: Basically, there was a group of folks involved with the campaign issue of casinos in the Catskills. There was a coalition of people from different organizations, and at one point somebody said: what we really need is a “Mountainkeeper,” like the Hudson (River) has a Riverkeeper. We started talking about who we wanted to get on the board, who would be our supporters, and it looked to us like a really good fit. There were a lot of organizations working in the Catskills, but there wasn’t one really strong advocate—Catskill Center for Conservation and Development was always straddling the fence on things—we really wanted a group that could come out and take on some of these bigger issues.

Kathy: I had been working with several grass-roots environmental groups in the Catskills over the past decade or so, and saw that Mountainkeeper was doing very good work in relationship to the casino gambling issue, and in relation to gas drilling. I began to work with Mountainkeeper as a volunteer. When I found out they were interested in having a presence on the Eastern side of the Catskills, with the focus on the Catskill Park, I was very happy to suggest Woodstock as a place where we could start a new office, and where I could begin working with them in a more formal way.

One of the prime issues the organization confronts is the controversial technique known as hydrofracturing, or “hydrofracking.” Can you explain a bit about the hazards of this practice, and why further study is needed of a technique that has been used for years, apparently without reports of serious long-term environmental damage?

Wes: Well, although the technology of hydrofracking and horizontal drilling has been around for many years, the combination of the two, along with the new mix of chemicals that they’re using, is a very new technology. It makes these shale deposits and tight sand deposits available now for production. By using this combination, you break up these formations, and release the gas that’s trapped in tiny pores and cracks within the rock. And you put this mix of chemicals down into a high-volume drilling bore hole that’s created by drilling horizontally.

The difference that scares most people, scares agency folks, doctors, lawyers, everybody, is the volume, and the industrialization of the landscape. Because it’s a sheet formation in the source rock, there will be hot spots which are most attractive to industry. You’re talking about a grid work across the entire landscape. And once the industry comes in and goes after the shale deposit, there are other formations out there under the Catskills—there are five target formations that will become attractive. They might not have brought up the trucks from Oklahoma (yet), but after the pipelines are in, and the industry is here, they will continue to go after those formations.

That’s the biggest issue; what we’re talking about here is cumulative impact. And the regulations in the state of New York are outdated and inadequate for these new combinations of technologies. The old GEIS (Generic Environmental Impact Statement) put into law in 1992, said ‘due to the nature of gas drilling, there is no environmental impact.’ That’s obviously wrong and outdated. We’ve gone through this regulatory process over the last two years, and the best that the DEC could come up with a year ago—the last draft that anyone has seen—was ‘the cumulative impact was too difficult to predict.’ And that’s not good enough for the state of New York.

Basically what we’re talking about is that New York State is not prepared for this kind of development. We’re talking about impacting our air, our water, the health of our communities, even the health of our ecosystem.

Will the practice of hydrofracking in Southwestern New York have any dire effect of the environmental health of the Catskill Mountains—and consequently, the watershed for New York City—and surrounding areas? How so?

Wes: Well, the Marcellus basically runs under the whole Allegheny Plateau, everything west of an imaginary line drawn from Port Jervis to Kingston. Then, if you include the Utica shale, you’re talking about a formation that goes up to Albany and Rochester. That’s a large swath of the state.

Also, the Catskills and the southern tier contain some of the most important agricultural producing regions, and some of the most intact ecosystems in the state. And there are fragmentation issues around where they put the (gas) pipelines in. This isn’t just the main line (the Millenium Pipeline), but the gathering lines that then go out, the compressor stations you have to put on these gathering lines that keep the gas moving, transmission lines. And with all of that, there are issues of air pollution. Then there’s the truck traffic involved with bringing in the water for the fracking operations—three to five, sometimes eight million gallons of water for an individual fracking operation. And that’s for one individual well! Each wellhead can have up to around 16 wells on an individual pad. We figured out at one point that actually equaled (using some of the higher numbers from the industry), somewhere around 560 tractor-trailer loads of toxic waste that then has to go from that site to a waste treatment facility. And as we’ve seen with the recent New York Times articles, there isn’t really a waste treatment facility in the state that’s equipped to handle anything like the radioactivity that would need to be dealt with.

Recent well-researched and thorough articles in The New York Times on the subject of hydrofracking illustrate how hamstrung the EPA and DEC are in monitoring water quality, and presenting accurate information to lawmakers, thanks to oil industry pressure and political contributions. The lawmakers don’t even get the necessary information they need to legislate, do they?

Wes: Well, that was very revealing, especially given the fact they’re talking about editing the letter that was already very strong against fracking, and the way it’s being proposed. The letter that the EPA sent to New York State, in terms of their comments to the GEIS, said it shouldn’t go forward without a formal rule-making package, and that the Department of Health should be co-lead agent as part of that rule-making process. And they left some really important pieces out, especially concerning New York City’s watershed.

Do you think it’s possible to prove the potential hazards of hydrofracking to the satisfaction of the public and legislatures, and if so, stop the practice completely?

Wes: Right now, before you allow something like this to go forward, you need to get a lot more answers. Whether the political will is there to actually stop it remains to be seen, depending on how aware people become. In my experience, as soon as people learn about this, and get good science on the information, they’re pretty horrified.

Does harvesting this gas help the region in any way, other than enriching select landowners and oil companies? Does our region benefit from an increase in good jobs, more tax revenue?

Wes: There are some preliminary studies that are being done by Cornell University about the economic piece (of the puzzle). One of the preliminary pieces of information that came out that I get a chuckle over is that they talk about jobs that are created in the Marcellus Shale. 53% of them are created in Texas! So in terms of the long term economic benefits, the question is really out there, and you have to weigh those benefits against some of the problems that would be created in terms of infrastructure damage, truck traffic and all this stuff.

There will be jobs for diners and hotels….you know, you go out to Tonawanda (Western NY), and its hard to get a hotel room on any given night, there are so many workers from Oklahoma staying in the motels.

It’s good for the motel owner, but over the course of time, is that really a benefit to the region?

Kathy: We don’t have the same kind of landscape in terms of available open land they have out in the Western states. So in terms of overall social benefits, community benefits, you have to also look at what we’re already using this land for, and whether this is compatible. And that’s why some of the communities are starting to enact regulations to prevent these activities from coming in. What they’re saying is that there is not a community benefit.

There was also a mention in the Times article that some of the “produced” water from fracking—full of salt and chemicals—is evaporated to make road salt, to be sold to municipalities, some in New York State. Do you know if there is any chance of some of this product being used in this region?

Wes: That has definitely happened in New York State. That’s been, in the past, kind of a standard practice, to take the brine water and use it in the wintertime. Or even use it on dirt roads to control the dust. Some of that may have been OK, depending on whether that production water is coming from shallow formations that are basically just highly saline water. But once you get down into the Marcellus where you have exposure to heavy metals and arsenic, and other things such as benzene, there will be frack fluid that will need to be tested intensively for toxicity. At present, there is no protocol for testing but it’s unlikely to be safe enough to be spread on roads. We think it would be highly toxic.

The DEC has told us they’ve stopped spreading the “salt” on roads, but I still hear reports to the contrary. It’s definitely happening in Pennsylvania. When I’ve talked to some people out in Colorado, I’ve heard they’ve actually gone back and tested the soil on the side of the road, and found some of the toxins in the soil in the ditches there. Colorado has been “salting” there for many years.

Another issue of concern is the New York Regional Interconnect project, building a powerline from Utica to Orange County, cutting right through the Catskill Mountains. How concerned need we be about this project from an environmental point of view, and is the outcome worth the price?

Wes: This is one of those situations where a company is trying to put in this powerline because they basically want to compete with (New York Power Authority transmission corridor) Marcy South, which is another main powerline that runs through the Catskills, and is actually under utilized. It’s not that Marcy South is at capacity, or nearing it and we need to find another source of electricity. This is just a competing company that wants to come in and provide electricity, and try to outbid Marcy South. It’s one of those situations where we have to decide whether to just let industry build this infrastructure to provide money for themselves, or do we make some really good choices about what our energy policy is for the state.

Though the organization has strong roots in environmental issues, Mountainkeeper is also “pro-sustainable development, pro-local economy and pro-arts,” favoring open space preservation, town and village center revival, and recreational opportunities over land exploitation and casino gambling. What are some of the things you are doing on these fronts?

Kathy: Concerning the recent Stockbridge-Munsee casino initiative (opposed by Mountainkeeper), the Department of the Interior ruled that (Native American) tribes from out of state couldn’t go forward with their plans to come instate, and start their casinos. Communities reach for this solution in desperation, and it often just makes their situations worse. I think the temptation is the same as what hydrofracking holds out. But for now, the Catskills are not likely to see a proposal in front of us that looks like it has any chance of going forward.

We have a couple of initiatives coming out of the Woodstock office, that include the Trailkeeper initiative, which will encourage use of existing trails and expansion of the trail networks linking the hamlet centers. We hope that the Woodstock office can get the word out about sustainable practices that people are already using in their residences or in their workspaces.

Despite industrial factors, do you feel like the Catskills are in “good health?”

Kathy: I think we have a mixed review. The nitric oxides are up, and with the gas drilling you may actually see an increase in the sulphuric acids again. The Catskills have several areas that are very marginal, in terms of their air quality, and have been threatened with being declared non-attainment areas (meaning out of compliance with federal air quality standards, as enforced by the Federal Transportation Bureau) for many years. And we may see that we actually go into non-attainment with increasing activities that release harmful gasses and chemicals into the air.

The planning and transportation councils in each of the counties have attainment scorecards. And Ulster County is—I think—a ‘D’ on an A to F kind of scorecard.”

Seems like in these difficult economic times, New York defenders of clean air/water, healthy food, and sustainable lifestyles are beset with enemies: hydrofrackers, land-exploiting developers, the gaming industry, large-scale corporate farms. What can we ordinary citizens do against this money and power?

Kathy: Well, I think any one individual alone is going to feel isolated and disempowered. But when you put all the people who live here together, in large enough numbers, and if we make ourselves visible enough, the elected government must pay attention to that. Our new Governor: I don’t know all his positions; we’re all getting to know him. I do believe he wants to do what the people who are potentially going to re-elect him want him to do.

I think the main thing ordinary citizens can do is keep themselves motivated, not get depressed, and stay connected and informed. Be as visible as possible with letter writing, speaking out to local community governance. We’re very strongly in favor of communities using their town boards and other governmental agencies to send messages on these issues.

Visit to find out more about the grass-roots organization, upcoming events, and membership.

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