Niagara Falls, New York – With an end to New York’s statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing in sight, residents of Niagara Falls were alarmed to learn that wastewater from the controversial natural gas drilling practice could soon be shipped by truck or rail to their city and treated at the local wastewater treatment plant, just a few miles upstream from the massive Niagara Falls international waterfall.
On Thursday, about 30 local residents and members of environmental groups crammed into the Niagara Falls Water Board monthly meeting to voice their concerns. Some came armed with environmental reports on the variety of toxic and radioactive chemicals that can be found in hydraulic fracturing wastewater.
Others carried the memory of Love Canal, a residential neighborhood in Niagara Falls where schools and homes were built on a toxic chemical waste dump. President Jimmy Carter declared Love Canal a federal emergency in 1978 and the area was partially evacuated amid demonstrations and national media attention.
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“We need to take a look at the risks before we look at dollar signs … we don’t need another Love Canal,” activist Rita Yelda told the water board.
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly called “fracking,” involves injecting thousands of gallons of water, sand and chemicals into underground formations to break up rock and free up natural gas. Gas and oil companies have drilled vertical fracking wells for years, but, now, companies are drilling shallower, horizontal wells that environmentalists say can contaminate water supplies with wastewater, gas and chemicals.
Drilling companies are currently racing to exploit the Marcellus Shale, a vast, gas-rich underground formation under much of New York and Pennsylvania that stretches west into Ohio and West Virginia. Pennsylvania threw open its doors to fracking companies, but, earlier this year, state authorities ordered drillers to stop sending fracking wastewater to municipal water treatment facilities after radioactive compounds were detected in the state’s waterways.
A large, grassroots environmental movement has erupted to oppose fracking operations in eastern states. Hundreds of demonstrators attended an anti-fracking p`rotest in Philadelphia earlier this month, and dozens of municipalities have passed measures to limit or ban fracking.
Last year, New York declared a year-long moratorium on fracking as officials studied potential impacts of the practice, and in July, the state Department of Environmental Protection recommended lifting the ban and regulating drilling. New York is expected to lift the ban following a public comment period and drilling permits could be issued next year.
Niagara Falls is not near any prospective drilling areas, but the Niagara Falls Water Treatment Plant has been running below capacity for years since industrial firms left the economically desperate area. The facility is the first in the state to consider treating fracking wastewater.
The concerned residents in Niagara Falls charged the water board with answering a number of questions. How would the toxic wastewater be transported to Niagara Falls? Is an emergency response plan being created in case a truck or tanker spills the waste? Is the facility prepared to handle fracking waste and where will chemical wastes go after being removed? Have the Canadian authorities been consulted?
With the famous international waterfall and massive sources of fresh drinking water immediately downstream from the facility, the proposal to bring fracking wastewater to Niagara Falls is expected to meet continued resistance from residents and activists. For fracking opponents, fighting the proposal could be a last-ditch effort to slow drilling momentum in New York by blocking avenues for treating wastewater. For a local community with a combined legacy of toxic contamination and job loss, the proposal is both a blessing and a curse that authorities must consider with foresight and caution.