October 23, 2009 / 9:52 PM / in 10 years

NYC sees "alarming" risks in natgas drilling

NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York City’s top environmental official on Friday called the risk that drilling for natural gas in the upstate region that supplies most of the city’s drinking water “especially alarming.”

New York state recently proposed rules allowing drilling in the multistate Marcellus Shale formation. Green groups said the rules were too lax because, for example, reservoirs would not be shielded with buffer zones.

New York City has spent decades fighting development near its upstate watershed, which supplies 90 percent of its drinking water.

Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stands for a third term in November, has continued this policy by purchasing land and has pledged to fight if he determines the proposed drilling could endanger the city’s water.

New York City’s acting environmental commissioner, Steven Lawitts, suggested the state or the energy companies should foot the bill if they pollute the city’s water supply, according to a copy of his testimony at a City Council hearing.

The estimated pricetag is at least $10 billion for a treatment plant that would cost $100 million a year to run — and a 30 percent hike in water and sewer rates paid by city residents, he said.

“Virtually all of these watersheds lie directly over the Marcellus Shale formation,” he said. The state already restricts drilling in the beds of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

“The nine million New York residents who depend upon Catskill-Delaware water deserve the same amount of protection as those New Yorkers who depend upon Great Lakes surface waters,” he said.

Extracting the gas is expected to require splitting the shale by pumping in water, chemicals and other materials, such as sand. Some of the chemicals, though they may be only a small part of the overall mixture, are considered toxic or carcinogenic, and might contaminate the ground water.

This method also requires clear-cutting the forest, building new roads and storing the chemicals, said Lawitts.

The city has hired engineers to evaluate the risks and asked state environmental officials to consult their counterparts at the state health department.

The U.S. government has so far spared the city from having to build the costly filtration plant because the upstate watershed is still mainly a rural, farming area and there is “a “vigorous system of land use controls,” Lawitts said.

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