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Public hearings on hydrofracking set to start Wednesday

The Department of Environmental Conservation begins holding hearings on the rules that would govern hydrofracking this week. New Yorkers have watched closely as fracking has unfolded in Pennsylvania and some are wary that environmental abuses could happen here ¿ while others are eager for the economic boom drilling could bring. The Innovation Trail's Matt Richmond reports.

Libby Foust lives on a quiet gravel road outside Ithaca, in a farmhouse with a 360 degree view of green hills, woods and grain silos.

She moved her family here from a farm in Troy, Pennsylvania.

"Just a very small, quaint town, had not much to offer except local people with local jobs, lot of farming."

But a couple of years ago, things changed. Her father¿s farm and some of the neighbors¿ farms near a gas pipeline were first to have hydrofracking wells drilled.

The Bradford County community quickly became a gas town. Foust still visits her parents there every month or so and says all the money coming in has kept drilling's popularity high.

"I see brand new tractors in farmers' fields that never had new equipment, and I think, good for them. They finally can get a new tractor, they've struggled for 50, 60 years."

But the ruined drinking wells, the long lines of truck traffic, the loss of control over the land is too much for Foust.

"Just past where I lived, there¿s an old dirt road with grass growing in the middle of it. It¿s called the old buckwheat road and I drove it and walked it a billion times. And I always remember thinking I'm glad that this has never changed in my lifetime and it's changed now because there¿s a pumping station at the end of it. I get to a certain point now and I turn and come back because I don't want to see."

Foust thought she'd be getting away from drilling in New York. But now the same conflict between those that want to profit from drilling and those who want to protect the land is playing out here.

This week, that conflict will come to a head as the Department of Environmental Conservation, or DEC, holds two public hearings about its proposed drilling regulations. The public will have a chance to comment on what¿s called the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, or SGEIS, with the hopes of swaying state regulators.

Joe Martens is commissioner of the DEC, the agency that is crafting the SGEIS. He says the thousands of public comments received on a previous SGEIS draft have resulted in changes.

"I¿m confident that we'll make plenty of changes as a result of the input we get from the public this time around."

Martens says there were two major changes that came from previous public comments. One was a recommendation to prohibit drilling on state lands. The other was a safeguard for the Syracuse and New York City watersheds.

But environmental groups are far from satisfied. Katherine Nadeau works for Environmental Advocates of New York. She says the state has actually done little to address the SGEIS' shortcomings.

"The state's proposal to oversee fracking is woefully inadequate and we need to make sure that our laws are updated, our regulations are updated and the state's environmental agency has the staff on the ground before any fracking is permitted in New York State."

Nadeau says that lately the state has slowed down the rush to drill in New York. Recommendations from a drilling advisory panel have been delayed and the DEC won't have the numbers on how much it will cost to safely regulate fracking before the governor presents his budget for next year. Which means the DEC might not start issuing drilling permits until 2013.

These delays have started to frustrate pro-fracking groups. A new group called Clean Growth Now touts the economic benefits of fracking. Lou Santoni is a member and the president of the Greater Binghamton Chamber of Commerce. He says New York has spent enough time learning about the issue.

"We could talk about this for ever. And it seems like we¿ve delayed this a year and then another year and another year. I think the time for action is now."

But for now, more talk is what¿s on the agenda.  There are two more hearings at the end of the month, after this week¿s hearings.  Public comment officially wraps up on December 12.  Next up for the DEC will be a final SGEIS, then regulations ¿ and only then, could the agency begin to consider drilling applications.