What’s the ‘task’ of Marcellus Shale task force?

John Christensen

Yates County Planner Shawna Bonshak hopes to clear up some public misconceptions of Yates County’s Marcellus Shale Task Force (MSTF).

With 16 members representing county, town, and village interests, as well as environmental and commercial concerns, the MSTF is meant to look at all sides of the controversial issue of hydrofracking. Addressing the very real possibility of the practice coming to drilling sites in the Finger Lakes, Bonshak says, “We’re not taking a stand pro or con. We’re working to prepare the county.”

That is what the task force was created to do. They are not intended to prevent, but to prepare the community’s options for when (and if) it is approved by the New York Department of Environmental Conservation.

That desire to plan ahead is meant to protect the county from some of the issues faced by communities in Pennsylvania and other states.

Peter Landre, Director of the Yates County Cornell Cooperative Extension and MSTF member, stresses the need to plan ahead for the possibility. “Once it starts, it goes quickly,” he warns, based upon his meetings with Pennsylvania Cooperative Extension personnel and legislators. Landre describes the differences between the Pennsylvania and Finger Lakes situations. They have a long history of a resource extraction economy, and hydrofracking was viewed by many as simply a progression of a long established industry. Yates County’s economy has always been based on agriculture and for the last century, also on tourism. “When it (hydrofracking) happens, it will alter the main economy,” declares Landre.

Two of the methods being employed in that preparation for change are Host Community Agreements (HCA) and Road Use Agreements (RUA).

While they do not have the force of laws, these agreements are drafted between individual municipalities and gas drilling companies. The Road Use Agreement is a requirement of the state’s permitting process at this point.

Bonshak says the group is working to make the HCA a requirement as well. The state is the only entity that issues permits, she notes.

Bonshak has been working with other county planners on the format and scope of the agreements, and Cornell University has formed a statewide coalition of MSTFs.

Elements of the HCA can include escrow funds placed on deposit to cope with any potential spills and training and equipment for police, fire, and ambulance personnel to prepare for related emergencies and information on approved water draw sites and fees. Water containment and treatment systems are dictated by state regulation.

RUAs can include: approved haul routes, speeds, weights, traffic volume, and hours of operation; responsibility and funding for the improvement, inspection, maintenance, and repair of routes, including bridges and culverts, as well as post-use road restoration; and the insurance and warrantee of materials and work done.

The Yates County Legislature approved a 14-page RUA form in June of 2010. Bonshak says the the HCA form is still being drafted in cooperation with Schuyler County.

Both she and Landre stress there are strong NYDEC regulations for the protection of open waters which go beyond the powers of HCAs. But given the agricultural basis of the local economy, Landre believes that NY Ag & Markets should also be involved in the process of ensuring the protection of land as well as water. “Even a 0.1 percent accident rate is too high when we’re talking about thousands of wells,” says Landre. If hydrofracking does come to the Finger Lakes, it’s the Yates County Task Force’s intent to keep that accident rate at zero, and to maximize the potential benefits while minimizing the potential hazards. Change may be inevitable, but controlling that change is essential.