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Letter: Precautions Against Fracking

New Yorkers are debating the many serious issues related to the extraction of natural gas from shale deposits that underlie parts of upstate New York. Recent news stories indicate that the state Department of Environmental Conservation may soon begin to permit high-volume hydraulic fracturing in our state on a limited basis.

We need a program that will ensure New Yorkers are protected from harm and cleanup costs are covered if contamination from drilling happens. We simply cannot afford to cross our fingers and hope accidents won’t occur.

In June, a drilling accident in Union Township, PA, caused natural gas to infiltrate a drinking water well and a nearby stream. In addition to the environmental damage, a family had to be evacuated from their home.

Resolution of damage claims associated with such accidents can be slow and uncertain. A recent review of litigation in state and federal courts by an independent law journal found that the majority of cases filed against companies alleging natural gas production contamination since 2009 have not yet been resolved.

I have advanced legislation that would create a fund to provide the necessary resources to immediately respond to any accidents and provide a prompt remedy to individuals damaged by related contamination. The natural gas damage recovery fund program is a sensible proposal that the legislature should act on as soon as possible.

New York taxpayers should not have to bear the burden from contamination that damages our air, water and property. The state Superfund program, created in the wake of the Love Canal disaster, has been a successful example of the polluter-pays principle, and was the basis for the federal Superfund program.

My proposal is modeled after the successful New York State Environmental Protection and Spill Compensation Fund, which draws on the expertise and collaborative efforts of the Department of Environmental Conservation, the office of the attorney general and the office of the state comptroller to address oil spills.

If contamination does occur, the party that causes the contamination should be held responsible for the full costs of cleanup.

If parties are unable or unwilling to act quickly on a cleanup, the fund is created to allow the state to take over the cleanup.

Funding for the program would come from a surcharge on permit fees on gas production facilities, costs and penalties paid by responsible parties, with additional remediation cost protection for taxpayers provided by surety bonds to be posted by gas well developers.

Preventing accidents and contamination should always be our first priority. But it is impossible to eliminate all risk. If an accident should occur, the state needs to be ready with a rapid response and a reliable mechanism to hold polluters accountable.

This is true for both the gas drilling already under way in the state today, as well as any future high volume hydrofracturing activity.

It’s really quite simple: New Yorkers should not have to bear the economic and health burden of air, water and property contaminated by gas drilling. We should make sure they will not. When the Legislature returns to Albany, this important legislation should be high on the agenda.

Thomas P. DiNapoli
New York State Comptroller