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Sara Foss's Thinking It Through
by Sara Foss

Thinking It Through

A Daily Gazette life blog
Her column and blog rolled into one
 

Towns have right to say no to fracking

By Sara Foss
Tuesday, July 1, 2014

When I was in the fourth grade, my family, friends and neighbors received a nasty shock: Our small New Hampshire town was a candidate for the country’s first high-level nuclear waste dump.
There are a lot of things people don’t want in their backyard, and a nuclear waste dump might be at the top of the list.
The residents immediately rallied, packing town meetings, writing letters and grilling Department of Energy officials at public hearings. One of my favorite T-shirts that year featured the coiled rattlesnake of the ever-popular Gadsden flag and the defiant motto of the anti-dump movement: “Don’t dump on me.”
I mention this formative experience because I think it explains why I’m so distrustful of the energy industry.
Even at the age of 11, it wasn’t lost on me just how much nuclear power companies talk out of both sides of their mouth, assuring people that nuclear power is safe and clean while generating enormous amounts of hazardous waste that nobody in their right mind would want anywhere near them. And I understood, instinctively, that towns and cities often face an uphill battle when pitted against powerful outside forces such as the federal government.
Which is a roundabout way of saying: I’m pleased that the state Court of Appeals has ruled that New York towns can ban oil and gas drilling and fracking. In doing so, the Court of Appeals has upheld a lower court ruling that found that local governments have the authority to determine how land within their borders is used.
This decision is a victory for environmentalists, but also for those who believe communities should be able to determine their fate.
Though fracking bans have been passed in more than 170 New York municipalities, the lawsuit challenged bans in two upstate communities, Dryden, in Tompkins County, and Middlefield, in Otsego County. The plaintiffs — an energy company and a dairy farm — had argued that the state’s oil, gas and mining law took precedent over local zoning laws.
But the court saw it differently, with Judge Victoria Graffeo writing that Dryden and Middlefield engaged in a “reasonable exercise” of zoning authority in banning oil and gas extraction and production, and that the towns were within their rights to find that the practice “would permanently alter and adversely affect the deliberately cultivated small-town character of their communities.”
The ruling is similar to one issued last year by Pennsylvania’s highest court.
I tend to side with the environmentalists when it comes to fracking — an energy-intensive process that involves drilling deep into the ground and blasting a mix of water, chemicals and sand at high pressure to break up shale deposits and release natural gas.
The research suggests that concerns about pollution and groundwater contamination are legitimate, while earlier this year seismologists warned that the fracking boom might lead to more earthquakes.
“Fracking itself has been linked to quakes,” the magazine National Geographic reported in May. “More often, though, the cause is injection of fracking wastewater into disposal wells.”
I don’t pretend to be an expert on energy.
But when I hear that fracking might cause earthquakes, well, it gives me pause.
Of course, the energy industry maintains that fracking is safe, when done properly.
And perhaps some new research will come out soon showing that it is.
But if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that the energy industry will never admit that it’s doing anything dangerous or unclean.
The only time you’ll ever see officials deviate from the standard company line is when disaster strikes — when there’s a huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, or a meltdown at a nuclear power plant in Japan.
The Court of Appeals decision will not have an immediate impact, as a moratorium on fracking is currently in effect in the state of New York.
After the Court of Appeals ruling was handed down, Dan Fitzsimmons, president of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York, which represents pro-fracking landowners, said that the rights of the state and its experts “to make decisions concerning the production of New York’s domestic resources has been obliterated by the court in favor of a not-in-my-backyard mentality.”
Maybe so.
But sometimes it makes sense to have a not-in-my-backyard mentality, if it means opening your backyard up to pollution and waste.
There are communities in New York that want fracking, which is fine. People are free to think and feel whatever they like.
But the communities that don’t want it are right to resist having it imposed on them.
Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at sfoss@dailygazette.net or 395-3193. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. Her blog is at www.dailygazette.com/weblogs/foss.

 
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