Who Will Foot the Bill???

October 14, 2009

Hydro-fracturing gas drilling into the natural gas-rich Marcellus Shale may mean big bucks for landowners and gas companies, but it also could cost large sums to taxpayers, if local governments end up shouldering the burden of environmental monitoring.

That possibility is one of the issues that state officials should address as the Department of Environmental Conservation holds public information sessions on new regulations for hydro-fracturing.

An article in this newspaper revealed that county health departments in New York would end up providing oversight of monitoring water quality in private wells that might be affected by the chemicals used by companies as they extract natural gas from shale lying underground.

Broome County, where officials believe that 2,000 to 4,000 gas wells could be drilled, already has started doing the math about that impact. Claudia A. Brown, county health department director, said Tuesday her agency has figured that if just 600 well pads go up in the county as many as 2,500 drinking water wells would have to be monitored. She already has asked other state officials whether there will be state aid reimbursement for the staff time spent on monitoring and investigating complaints.

In Chemung County, Environmental Health Director Tom Kump said he was unaware that local health departments might have to pay for the monitoring process. His department currently does simple bacteria tests for private water wells, costing around $12 to $15. But dealing with tests for the list of chemicals involved in hydro-fracturing could be much more complicated, he said. “There are a lot of questions we have, and we don’t have the answers yet,” he said.

In Tompkins County, Environmental Health Director Liz Cameron said word that local health departments might have to bear the cost of monitoring water supplies caught her somewhat by surprise. She chairs a gas drilling committee for the Tompkins County Water Resources Council and said the proposed regulations have forced a revision of educational information that the council intends to provide to the public about drilling and water wells used for drinking.

Counties such as Broome, Chemung and Tompkins already are financially strapped as it is, and with a fresh third-quarter report showing a further decline in sales tax revenue, the outlook for 2010 budgets looks as bleak as 2009. Adding more work with no money to offset the cost would further burden taxpayers, and that’s what could happen if the cost of monitoring private wells affected by drilling gets passed on to localities.

As part of the discussion of enacting regulations, state officials should include a fee structure that could be part of the permit costs to drillers that would compensate county health departments for the monitoring expense. It’s an expense the companies must be prepared to bear, and state officials should insist that it be part of the cost of doing business in New York.

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