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LOCH SHELDRAKE, New York (Reuters) - The final hearings on regulations that would end a ban on drilling for natural gas in New York state got under way on Tuesday in a packed auditorium at Sullivan County Community College.
In a last chance for communities to voice their views for and against a controversial drilling technique called fracking, about 300 people turned up, many of whom were left in the rain as the house spilled above capacity.
Advocates of fracking, which involves blasting chemical-laced water and sand into shale rock to release gas, told a rowdy, polarized audience that drilling would create jobs and boost New York's ailing economy.
Those against blamed it for contaminating water wells and threatening the safety of local communities.
Outside, signs read "Don't frack with our water" and "Jail the frackers".
Others disagreed. "We fight wars and import oil to get resources that we have at home," said Edward Allees, 88, from Jeffersonville, New York. "What is so special about New York that we can't drill here?"
New York sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, the largest U.S. deposit of natural gas, which also stretches across parts of Pennsylvania, West Virginia and Ohio.
Governor Andrew Cuomo hopes to put an end to the drilling moratorium by next year as the New York Department of Environmental Conservation finalizes new regulations for the state.
Cuomo aims to replicate the energy boom that Pennsylvania has seen in recent years thanks to drilling in the Marcellus.
But the move has spurred opposition from environmentalists who say fracking could taint fresh water for millions of residents, including those in New York City.
"We have long argued that new gas development using the risky fracking technology should not be permitted in New York unless and until it has been demonstrated that it can be done safely. We're simply not there yet," said Kate Sinding, an attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, in a blog.
Industry maintains that fracking, which could release enough natural gas for a century of U.S. needs, is safe.
"With more than 1 million wells safely hydraulically fractured in the United States, the nation's oil and natural gas industry has a stellar record of safety," said Brad Gill, executive director of the Oil and Gas Association of New York, which represents gas drillers in the state.
The Sullivan County hearing will be followed by a final hearing in New York City on Wednesday where environmentalists have planned anti-fracking protests. (Reporting by Edward McAllister; Editing by Dale Hudson)