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Environmental commissioner offers fracking decision update

New York state’s environmental commissioner for the first time commented in-depth about a new health review that has once again delayed a decision on whether to allow hydrofracking in the state. But Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens says there are still some unanswered questions.Commissioner Martens' comments are the first after a tersely worded two-paragraph statement issued in late September. It said the state’s health commissioner, Dr. Nirav Shah, would conduct a review of health impact data compiled by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  

Martens says the environmental agency has additional information on the health impacts of exposure to chemicals used in fracking, and possible air pollution from generator and pump emissions.

“We have done a lot more work since the last draft that the public has seen,” Martens said.

But Martens says the new health impact data cannot be released to the public until the Health Commissioner finishes his review.  

He could not say when that might happen, though. Under the new plan, Dr. Shah must still choose outside experts to help him. Martens says those yet unnamed experts have not signed contracts with the state to do the review.

“It’s not 100 percent certain at this point what the exact scope is going to be,” he said.

If the whole health review process takes more than six weeks, then Martens will run up against a key November 29 deadline.  If DEC does not have its rules in place for fracking by then, it has to start that part of the process over. That means there could be another opportunity for public comment, and more reports to be written.

Martens says he does not know right now if that deadline will be missed and cause further delays. He says it is “to be determined.”

Some landowners with gas drilling leases are growing impatient. They protested, chanting “no more delays”  at the Capitol on October 15.

State Senator Tom Libous represents Binghamton, in the Southern Tier region, centered in the Marcellus Shale. He’s also eager for fracking to begin. The senator was asked whether he thinks Governor Andrew Cuomo is deliberately delaying a decision on a politically controversial issue.  Libous says Cuomo should just decide “by the end of the year.”

“The economy of the Southern Tier and upstate New York depends on it,” Libous said.   

Libous predicts that the “science will dictate” that it can be done safely. And he says there is no need to drag out Dr. Shah’s health review. He says the Department of Health has been privy to that information all along.

“I think they’re well aware of what the impact is,” Libous said. “I think the studies are done.”

Martens says that is not true. “It’s not done because we’ve asked Dr. Shah to review it,” Martens said. “He may come back and say ‘you need to do additional work.’”

Meanwhile, environmental groups who oppose fracking are frustrated by what they say is a the lack of transparency. Alex Beauchamp , with New Yorkers Against Fracking, says based on Martens comments, it does not appear that the health study will be very comprehensive or independent.

“I think it’s really worrisome,” said Beauchamp, who says there’s a danger that the study could be a “sham” or a “rubber stamp.”

Cuomo, who has appointed Martens as well as Dr. Shah, has made a policy of staying above the day-to-day details of the lengthy review on fracking.

“There’s politics for it, there’s politics against it,” said Cuomo. “We want to make a decision on the merits.”

The governor has also said the decision will be made based on science and facts. Right now, no one is in his administration can say exactly when all of those facts will be collected.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.