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Reveal the Chemicals. Stop the Fracking

David Hirsch

Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, N.Y., was a supporter of the region’s agriculture long before the term “locavore” came into popular usage. The area excels in an impressive range of local products: grains; beans; flours; tofu made from soybeans grown nearby; produce; the whole gamut of dairy products, including goat, cow and sheep cheeses; wine from more than 100 Finger Lakes wineries; beer; apple cider; fruit juices and even distilled liquor.

It’s a beautiful region of lakes, creeks, waterfalls, lush forests and abundant harvests. Until recently, another feature, the Marcellus Shale, was fairly unknown. Named for a distinctive outcrop near the village of Marcellus, these marine sedimentary rock deposits formed millions of years ago and extend throughout much of the Appalachian Basin. The shale can be thousands of feet below the earth’s surface and contain natural gas reserves, making it an attractive target for energy development.

Horizontal hydrofracking, or simply fracking, is a means of harvesting natural gas from deposits like these, inaccessible through conventional drilling. As many as 596 chemicals, many of them proprietary, are required for each drilled, or fracked, well. Millions of gallons of water become contaminated in the process and must be collected, transported and disposed of.

The Halliburton loophole

In 2005, the Bush/Cheney Energy Bill exempted natural gas drilling from the Safe Drinking Water Act, allowing companies to withhold the list of chemicals used during fracking. Essentially, the provision, now commonly referred to as the Halliburton Loophole, took the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) off the job and let the oil companies loose with their arsenal of dangerous chemicals.

The FRAC Act (Fracturing Responsibility and Awareness of Chemicals Act – HR 1084) sponsored by Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), Rep. Diana DeGette (D-Colo.) and Rep. Jared Polis (D-Colo.) is a House bill intended to repeal the Halliburton Loophole and require the natural gas industry to disclose the chemicals they use.

This act is in committee and not yet scheduled for a vote, and the time to air your opinion is now. Hinchey, DeGette and Polis also requested an expansion of the ongoing EPA study of hydraulic fracturing, which Hinchey jump-started through legislation that was signed into law in 2010. The current plan does not include a study of air pollution and other health risks that have been closely associated with fracking. It’s not hard to come up with a list of reasons to ban the practice.

5 top reasons to severely limit or ban fracking

1) Water: The toxic fracking chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, ethylene glycol, benzene and formaldehyde travel with the water used in the process. Marcellus Shale drilling in Dimock, Pa., resulted in contaminated private drinking water wells. Health problems listed in a formal complaint include neurological and gastrointestinal illness. Tons of waste fluids generated through fracking must be disposed of — trucked to and buried a mile or more underground in disposable wells; “recycled” and chemically adjusted to be used again; stored in lined pits that are theoretically sealed and “safe” from leaking. With the severe flooding in this region in 2011, how safe can they really be? Streams and rivers carry water hundreds of miles; the potential range of the spread of fracking-related chemicals is enormous.

2) Crops: If fracking can contaminate drinking water, it can also pollute water used for farming. Potential spills into surrounding soil and streams could seep into underground well supplies. The chemicals might cause soil to become acidic and infertile and the released gases could hamper crop growth. Rural Wyoming failed to meet its 2009 federal emissions standards because of ozone levels higher than Houston and Los Angeles. Fingers point to fracking.

3) Livestock: In 2010, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture quarantined 28 head of cattle after they drank wastewater from a fracking site in Tioga County. The fear was that a radioactive contaminant in the water, strontium, would end up in beef.

4) Marketing: If you knew that the food you buy at the farmers market was grown in a contaminated area, would you still buy it? How tragic that hundreds of local farms that supply neighbors, small towns and big cities could be in jeopardy.

5) Precedent: In the Finger Lakes, several towns have banned fracking. Last week, the town of Dryden won a lawsuit against the energy company that has leased land within its borders.

Energy companies have made thousands of leases to extract gas from private and public land. The landowners and the energy companies stand to reap significant financial rewards. In many parts of the Marcellus Shale region — New York, Ohio Pennsylvania and West Virginia — farming income and employment have seen significant declines. The promise of financial gain overrides concern for the fracking’s aftermath. In our view, this is shortsighted.

The good news is that many grassroots movements have aligned with national advocates to stop the energy companies from drilling. But the fight is not nearly over. I urge you to contact your representative in Congress to support HR 1084. Petitions can be signed at the Sierra ClubEarth JusticeFood & Water Watch as well as at one of my favorite sites, Cooks for Marcellus.

Moosewood is now in its 40th year of operation. Our hope is for this celebratory year to be one that sees our gratifying relationships continue with the many local growers who contribute to the unique spirit and lifestyle of the Finger Lakes region of New York.

This week’s Zester Daily Soapbox contributor, David Hirsch, is the co-owner of Moosewood Restaurant. For more than 35 years at the iconic restaurant, he has done everything from waiting tables to cooking and teaching. A contributor to all the Moosewood Restauarant cookbooks, he also wrote his own: The Moosewood Restaurant Kitchen Garden.

Photo: David Hirsch. Credit: Laura Branca

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