NY: Debate over fracking’s effects on fish, wildlife
Elmira, N.Y. - As the debate over the safety of hydraulic fracturing for natural gas rages in New York, sportsmen's groups are watching with more than idle curiosity.
New Yorkers concerned about the impact of the controversial gas extraction method don't have to look any farther than their neighbors to the south for some answers.
Hydrofracking is already approved in Pennsylvania, and exploration and drilling are booming in Northern Tier counties.
So far, there has not been a significant negative impact on game fish, said Rob Wnuk, area fisheries manager with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission.
"We've had one major incident with fracking fluid spilling into a stream (in Bradford County) that caused us to terminate a fish stocking," Wnuk said. "We haven't had any fish kills or anything like that yet. (But) all it takes is one incident that could cause long-term problems. We've been lucky so far. There are a lot of rules in place."
In fact, hydrofracking can have several beneficial effects on wildlife, according to Jerry Feaser, a spokesman for the Pennsylvania Game Commission.
Well and pipeline development often creates new openings in forested areas that can attract deer, turkeys and other wildlife, Feaser said.
There are financial incentives that can benefit game and other species as well, he added.
"We haven't had a license fee increase since 1999 in Pennsylvania, so our license dollar revenue has been flat. But with this increase in mineral rights, oil and gas, we're able to do things we previously had to put aside," said Feaser, who said a primary use of the revenue is to purchase additional state game lands to offset the possible loss of other land to drilling.
At the same time, Northern Tier sportsmen aren't taking it for granted that the natural gas drilling boom is all good for wildlife.
They are, in fact, watching the developments with a healthy dose of skepticism.
"What we're doing is starting a water monitoring program. We're trying to get a baseline on acidity and total dissolved solids, pH, that kind of thing, so when something goes wrong down the road, gas companies can't say ‘It's always been like that,'" said William Paulmier of Westfield, Tioga County, Pa., president of the Tiadaghton Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
"We're trying to learn by the mistakes we learned 100 years ago from the coal industry," Paulmier said. "Trout Unlimited's official stance is we're not against drilling - just be responsible."
New York is looking hard at how Pennsylvania and other states are handling hydrofracking - both what they are doing right and mistakes they might have made along the way, said DEC spokeswoman Emily DeSantis.
If and when hydrofracking is approved in New York, the impact on wildlife should be minimal, DeSantis said.
"Under the draft SGEIS (supplemental generic environmental impact statement), surface drilling is not allowed in certain state lands where hunting is a principal use," she said. "In addition, the draft SGEIS examines the potential impacts on wildlife in grassland and forest habitats and includes measures to mitigate those impacts. Discharges to streams are addressed in many ways (engineering controls, setbacks, etc.) and, therefore, impacts on fish are not anticipated."
Those assurances are little comfort to people who have been fighting to keep hydrofracking out of New York state, including Peter Gamba of Branchport, in Yates County.
Gamba, who lives near Keuka Lake, is chairman of the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, and he believes hydrofracking will adversely affect humans and animals.
"We do have a lot of hunting up here. If this stuff comes in, it's going to go away. It does affect the wildlife," Gamba said. "They are coming into an area that is rural in nature, agricultural, and it will upset that whole environment and make it toxic."
Not so fast, said Chris Yearick, a biologist by profession, avid outdoorsman and president of the Chemung County Federation of Sportsmen.
Yearick isn't ready to condemn the practice. In fact, hydrofracking has the potential to do both harm and good for wildlife, he said.
"We're concerned. You are talking huge amounts of water withdrawal. That can be a big issue, especially in a low flow year like this summer," Yearick said. "It can go both ways. It can have great benefits. One thing we are seeing is, with pipelines, you have food plots. We have 300 acres on our property. We had a pipeline go across. We seeded it. (The gas company) reimbursed us. Now we have bear, deer and turkeys. They just love it."