By Brian Nearing
Albany Times Union
ALBANY — An appearance before state lawmakers by Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joe Martens on his agency’s proposed 2013-14 budget Monday turned into a three-hour grilling dominated by the issue of natural gas hydrofracking.
The scene took place in a hearing room packed by hundreds of hydrofracking opponents, with a line of people waiting to get in long after Martens started testifying. When he left, several dozen people followed Martens out into the hallway, peppering him with questions, until staffers whisked the stone-faced commissioner away into a stairwell in the Legislative Office Building.
Among his inquisitors at the joint Assembly-Senate budget hearing was hydrofracking opponent Sen. Tony Avella, a Queens Democrat and proponent of a hydrofracking ban, who greeted Martens by telling him that he was “doing a great job, except for the issue of hydrofracking.”
The lawmaker took Martens to task for an unreleased DEC assessment of the potential human health impacts of hydrofracking, a drilling technique which uses a high-pressure blend of chemicals, water and sand to break up gas-bearing rocks deep underground.
After natural gas opponents repeatedly called for a health study, DEC decided late last year that its unreleased review would be studied by the state Department of Health, which in turn hired three outside experts. Critics like Avella question why the DEC review remains secret, as does the DOH review.
“My concern is that the DEC review was nothing, and the (outside) scientists were asked to look at this, and they are reviewing nothing,” Avella said.
Responded Martens: “I disagree with your characterizations. … Our review was of all potential adverse impacts, from the environment to public health.”
Avella countered that “DEC is punting back to Health on the review, and Health is punting back to DEC.”
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Martens repeated past statements that his agency has no timetable to finish its proposed shale gas drilling rules, which could require changes based on potential findings from the Health Department study.
Should the Health Department recommend significant changes, that could string out the DEC process by months. If not finalized by Feb. 27, DEC’s proposed rules expire and would have to be reissued — and subject to another round public comment. The current proposed rules drew more than 200,000 comments, which DEC is legally required to respond to if the comment relates to the most recent round of changes to the rules.
The crowd in the hearing room was vocal at times, occasionally hissing or groaning in reaction to Martens’ remarks. At one point, Senate Finance Committee Chairman John DeFrancisco threatened to adjourn the commissioner’s testimony if the audience could not remain quiet.
Sen. Terry Gipson questioned why DEC’s proposed overall road map to allow hydrofracking, called a Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement, contained few specifics on how gas drilling could impact the state’s tourism industry, or deal with roads subjected to increased heavy truck traffic from drilling equipment.
“This (SGEIS) glosses over a lot of issues. How can the outside health experts know what information was reviewed by the DEC?” said Gipson, a Democrat from Dutchess and Putnam counties.
Some of the harshest questioning came from Assemblywoman Barbara Lifton, a longtime hydrofracking opponent from Ithaca. She told Martens that DEC’s review was a “backwards process, a convoluted process, and certainly not an open process.” She pressed Martens about media reports that DEC was poised to approve a limited drilling program in the Southern Tier, and slammed the drilling industry for a law adopted in Pennsylvania that bars doctors from sharing information about patients with afflictions possibly linked to hydrofracking.
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“Does that kind of thing make you uncomfortable?” Lifton asked. Martens said while he was uncomfortable with any sort of potential governmental corruption, he said it was unfair to assign nefarious motives to the entire drilling industry.
When Lifton finished, ending Marten’s testimony, the audience erupted in an anti-hydrofracking chant of “Not one well.”
The rally moved to the Million Dollar Staircase at the state Capitol, where among the speakers was state resident and activist Arun Gandhi, a grandson of Indian civil rights icon Mohandas Gandhi.
“I warn you, this goes beyond fracking. This is about selling our state and country to greedy profiteers,” he said. “This is about stopping the profiteers right here in their tracks.”
Marten’s testimony came as the Siena Research Institute released its latest polling on public attitudes toward hydrofracking, which continued to roughly divide New Yorkers down the middle — with 40 percent opposed, 40 percent in favor, and the rest unsure.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo is “in a position that chief executives hate: making a decision on a controversial issue where voters are split,” said Siena’s Steven Greenberg. “Unlike his position on guns, which angered a vocal minority, Cuomo’s decision on fracking is likely to anger far more voters — no matter which way he decides.”
The poll found that fracking opponents have passion on their side: Those opposed will be more upset if the technique moved forward than fracking supporters will be if it does not.
Avella voiced possibly the starkest part of the political calculus facing the governor. “If he allows hydrofracking, and the first bad well shows up —which we all know is coming — your presidential ambitions are done,” he said.