NEDROW, N.Y. – The Onondaga, a member nation of the Haudenosaunee Iroquois Confederacy and long leaders as healers of the environment, face a new threat: Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
The technique, used for much of today’s natural gas extraction, shoots chemicals mixed with millions of gallons of sand and water thousands of feet underground to break apart the rock, allowing more gas to escape and flow out of a well.
Complaints have soared as fracking has expanded across the country. “Every state where this is going on, people’s water is contaminated,” said Joseph Heath, general legal counsel to the Onondaga Nation.
New York, Ohio, West Virginia and Pennsylvania sit atop the gas rich Marcellus shale. Until recently, New York stood ready to allow drilling. But in the face of considerable opposition the state is now considering a moratorium.
“We’ve held them off for two years,” Heath said. The Onondaga, whose nation lies in Central New York, near Syracuse, are part of a grass-roots movement that helped convince New York’s state senate to put a moratorium on fracking until May 2012.
Heath said all the environmental issues involving fracking are a concern, but two specific issues are unique to the Onondaga.
Their nation invested $10 million to construct and maintain a state-of-the-art spring-fed fresh water delivery system that provides clean drinking water to every home on their recognized territory.
It’s the most significant infrastructure improvement in the nation’s history, and “a huge improvement to the quality of life of their citizens,” Heath said.
If New York allows oil and gas companies to drill it puts the Onondaga’s water system at risk of contamination. The springs that feed the system are on Onondaga territory, but the watersheds that feed those springs are not.
The gas companies, in anticipation of drilling sought and signed tens of thousands of drilling leases with private owners of land on those watersheds. That was long before the landowners knew that the future drilling was actually hydraulic fracturing, or even what that process was.
“Now, hundreds of people around the state are saying, ‘I would like to burn my lease,’” Heath said.
“The permanent disruption of peoples’ homes, lives, and communities is heartbreaking,” said Jeanne Shenandoah, Eel Clan elder and member of the Haudenosaunee Environmental Task Force who, with several HETF representatives and Onondaga members visited communities affected by fracking. “It impacts huge amounts of land and creates roads through forests and fields. Spills and waste ponds pollute the surface of the land, and the water. Drilling accidents allow gas to migrate into peoples’ water wells and homes. Hundreds of trucks speed down narrow roads every day.”
Shenandoah said when the air coming from these sites gives people headaches and health problems, “you know it’s being polluted too. This cannot be allowed, for the sake of all living things.”
In a letter to New York’s Department of Environmental Conservation the Onondaga Nation wrote they remain “resolutely committed” to absolute opposition to the practice of high-volume, slick-water, hydraulic fracturing.
They further expressed profound concern about the state’s use of a generic draft environmental impact statement that failed to comply with state law to protect cultural and archaeological resources, or that provided any notice to the historic preservation office or to the Onondaga Nation.
And their nation is greatly concerned about the enormous amounts of water used to shoot chemicals and sand underground.
“We have some of the best water in the country but it’s pretty fragile,” Heath said. “They’re going to take up to eight million gallons per frack, pollute it terribly with hundreds of chemicals, some carcinogenic, that would pick up heavy metals, radioactivity and a very high concentration of salt that’s in the shale. So you wind up with millions of gallons of highly toxic fluid, with no way to treat it.”
Heath and Shenandoah presented key notes at the National People’s Oil and Gas Summit in Pennsylvania Nov. 19, an indication of how well-accepted the nation’s role is within the non-Native environmental community, Heath said.
Earlier this year, in a case on the Wind River Indian Reservation in Wyoming, the Environmental Protection Agency investigated if fracking was the cause of contaminated wells and groundwater.
The agency found benzene, metals, naphthalene, methane and other contaminants. Three wells contained fracking fluids. The EPA told residents not to drink their water, and to ventilate when bathing or washing clothes to avoid the risk of explosion.
That study, the first of its kind by the EPA was thwarted owing to the agency’s not knowing which chemicals to test for. Gas and oil companies can lawfully conceal the chemicals they use in most states as trade secrets, even in the case of possible community contamination. (Wyoming has since amended its law.) A few states have regulations, but they vary. The EPA is pressuring the gas companies to provide information about those chemicals.
The energy companies have similar protections under the Safe Drinking Water Act, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, Resource Conservation and Recovery Act, Superfund, the Emergency Planning and Community Right to Know Act and the National Environmental Policy Act, Heath said.
During the Bush/Cheney administration, Congress passed the Energy Policy Act of 2005 that exempted oil and gas wastes, even if toxic, from the hazardous waste provisions of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
But last March Congress ordered the EPA to conduct a fracking study to address concerns that the process could impact ground water and surface water quality in ways that threaten human health. The EPA subsequently announced a comprehensive research study intended to investigate potential adverse impacts.
The oil and gas industry has argued that their costs from federal regulation would cripple their business, and that state regulations are already strong. Daniel Whitten of industry group America’s Natural Gas Alliance told reporters in mid-October that fracking “is the only way that you can get the gas out of there and the benefits of the gas are enormous.”