This cautionary tale is relevant to one of the most important decisions confronting New York State in our time: whether to permit the construction of tens of thousands of new high-volume hydrofracking gas wells across the southern half of our state.
In 1900, my grandfather John Pinkerton Wooster and his wife, Gertrude, sold the mineral rights below their farm along the Genesee River in Livingston County to the Sterling Salt Co. The “Barbara shaft” was completed in their back yard in Cuylerville in 1906. It extended down to the Vernon Shale, remnant of a highly saline inland sea and among the oldest bedrock strata in New York’s geologic record.
Sterling laid a railroad track across the fields, hired a mostly transient labor force and built all of the necessary roads and buildings. John quit farming and became the weights master for the mine; Gertrude cooked for “the bigwigs from New York.” My great Aunt Alice, John’s sister, married a principal investor and retired to Florida to live in a mansion complete with servants and a chauffeur.
In 1969, the Dutch company Akzo took over and enlarged the mine to 6,500 acres – the largest salt mine in North America – and in 1993 achieved a record-breaking $100 million in sales of 10 million tons of road salt. On March 12, 1994, an acre of the mine’s ceiling collapsed, attributed to over-mining and under-regulation, causing fractures in the bedrock and inflow of water from an overlying glacial aquifer. Despite Akzo’s pumping millions of gallons of salt water into the Genesee River to save the mine, it was completely flooded by January 1996.
The collapse affected the overlying structures of bedrock, glacial soils and water to the point that farm fields ruptured, sinkholes opened up, bridges, roads and foundations settled and cracked. Wells went dry or were contaminated with salt, barium and methane gas. The mine is now filled with 16 billion gallons of saturated halite brine.
Although this may seem like old news, a recently published U.S. Geological Survey study, pubs.usgs.gov/of/2011/1286/, finds that the Akzo mine disaster is still happening. By 2016, the study says, the weight of the overlying rock and sediment will squeeze this brine lake upward to the lowest of three aquifers – a 37-billion-gallon water supply that will become unusable as a water source. Let me repeat that: In three years, a 37-billion-gallon water supply will become unusable as a water source, as the contaminated water follows the bedrock slope south toward Sonyea and the Finger Lakes, and north potentially as far as Avon, a village whose history, economy and classical architecture were rooted in its identity as a water spa, and could be again, as the value of our state’s treasury of high-quality natural waters grows.
Akzo has been pumping and desalinating the salt mine lake since 2006 to prevent this migration into the aquifer. But the horizon of treatment is several hundred years, and even a Dutch company is not likely to keep its thumb in the dike that long. That task will likely default to the state and its taxpayers.
The Marcellus Shale is similarly overlain by glacial sediments and groundwater systems that can extend up to our creeks, lakes and wells and also run laterally underground for many miles. What are the impacts of penetrating these structures and fracturing the underlying bedrock at the rate of 160 acres per well in, on average, 38,000 new horizontal wells across the state?
So far, the Regulatory Impact Statement has omitted independent, publicly reviewed data on the potential impacts of hepatic vein flow volume to human, environmental and economic health beyond the 10-year booms caused by well construction. For example, the Economic Assessment Report states upfront that its numbers come from a shale gas “think tank” in Pennsylvania. Its estimates of “significant economic benefit” are based on its estimates of the number of new gas wells possible, translated simply into jobs and tax revenues. Oddly, for an economic assessment, its several hundred pages of tables and graphs do not factor in any of the costs associated with the extraction of billions of gallons of water from our lakes, creeks and aquifers; the trucking to well pads all over the land; or the contamination of all this water with a secret brew of chemicals, some known to be carcinogenic, which will then be pumped deep into the earth and much of it left there for potential future migration. Nor does the study consider the inevitable accidents that plague all mining and that, at this scale, could result in contamination of surface and ground drinking water supplies for millions of people.
Because of omissions like these, economic analysts have publicly protested that the economic report is flawed. But it is still being used to support the case for hydrofracking, like one of those thin pillars of salt under Cuylerville that was thought to be sound until it was not.
Margaret Wooster is a Watershed Planner and writer. Her most recent book is “Living Waters: Reading the Rivers of the Lower Great Lakes.”