19 April 2010


19 April 2010

Water, water, everywhere, who needs to worry about a drop to drink?

In an effort to keep tabs on the Catskills gas drilling issue and its impact on the regional water supply, up we went for another look at the activity of the pernicious gas drillers. Catskill Mountainkeeper, Wes Gillingham, Lighthawk pilot Bob Keller and yours truly, the undesignated hydro-fracking swat team out to save your drinking water.

For those who don’t know, hydro-fracking is a deep drilling technique that enables access to natural gas reserves locked in shale formations a mile or more below the surface by pumping vast quantities of water mixed with a chemical cocktail at extremely high pressure to fracture the rock formation and unlock the natural gas therein. Permits have been issued for the western Catskills, and drilling has already begun in the adjacent areas of Pennsylvania. The process uses millions of gallons of water per well, and could easily deplete groundwater and fluvial resources. And then of course are the pollution issues: these millions of gallons of chemical–laced water are being injected down through the aquifer, and back up again.

This was our third flight, so we knew the terrain and the issues pretty well, and agreed to meet at the Poughkeepsie airfield. It was a beautiful day, clear and cool (or as clear as it gets with the always-present pollution.) Always tolerant of my meanderings, Bob and Wes had agreed to a detour to look at a few coal-fired power plants and the Westchester Garbage Incinerator. So we shot the Danskammer Plant first (you can see their emissions report here if you want a little fright)

Coal Ash at Danskammer Power Plant

Our next stop on the tour was Lovett Plant in Tompkins Cove, just upriver from NYC.
When we got there, it was gone. How do you disappear a large power plant? Turns out, it was part of the Enron debacle (remember that) and was spun off to a company called Dynergy that refused to upgrade its pollution controls and was then ordered to close. Good riddance, New Yorkers can breathe a bit easier (turn off the lights before they build another one.) Here is the pollution scorecard on it.

The gas drilling sites we had photographed on our last expedition (nine months ago) were capped and closed, leaving only a giant industrial pad in the middle of the once pristine farm fields. It is amazing how fast they operate, drilling, fracking, and extracting in less than a year. I wonder if the farmers knew that they would be left with an abandoned industrial site in place of their farms. I wonder what the well water is like now?

We then moved westward to see some new sites, and were amply rewarded with some impressive drill rig towers, and then a site with a flare. Flares are generally how the really nasty stuff is burned away in petroleum refineries and drill sites, so you don’t want to live near there. (Wonder if the neighbors know about that?) Then we found a site with a continuous stream of tanker trucks filling a giant man-made pond, which gives some idea of the amount of water used in this process. As we circled, we saw several tractor trailers come and go without making a dent in the level. Assumedly, there is not enough groundwater at that location to support the millions of gallons per well, so they are likely trucking it in. But imagine if that amount of water was being removed from the aquifer as it is elsewhere. Water is so precious, and we take it for granted.

Then we happened upon a site in which fracking was in process, with numerous compressor trucks arrayed around a spider rig, looking like some industrial creature being attended by its feeder slaves. Quite fascinating, actually. The amount of pressure needed to fracture the shale formation is tremendous, and I can’t believe that pumping that water/chemical mixture down at such pressure through the aquifer is innocuous as the gas companies claim.