Niagara Falls isn't just a place where newlyweds go to snap pictures. It's an international treasure that feeds into Lake Ontario and provides drinking water to Toronto and beyond. And now, its future is in the hands of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, both of which are pushing hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the state, as well as the Niagara Falls Water Board, which will soon decide whether or not to accept toxic fracking waste trucked in from around the state. Get ready Niagara -- you're about to get fracked.
Many Americans are familiar with the disaster at Love Canal and the ensuing demand for stronger environmental regulation after a corporation buried massive amounts of toxic chemicals around Niagara Falls -- chemicals that saddled thousands of residents with chronic health problems ranging from birth defects to cancer. Now the oil and gas industry wants to send its toxic waste to the city's wastewater treatment plant, which discharges into the Niagara River, into Niagara Falls and eventually into Lake Ontario.
Fracking is a controversial type of gas drilling that injects water, sand and a cocktail of toxic chemicals underground to break apart dense rock and release gas. The process produces toxic wastewater containing carcinogens and radioactive elements such as radon and uranium. The gas industry has to dispose of this fluid somewhere. Unfortunately, just last month a news report indicated that the Niagara Falls Water Board had announced a decision to study the feasibility of accepting it at its wastewater plant.
The effect of this poor decision would likely be felt not only in Niagara Falls and other downstream U.S. cities, but in Canada as well, as the effluent discharged into the Niagara River flows into Lake Ontario -- the drinking water source for millions living around the lake and in major cities like Toronto.
Furthermore, Lake Ontario and the other four Great Lakes, which together hold 20 percent of the earth's surface fresh water, are interconnected. Ultimately, not only would one international treasure, Niagara Falls, be threatened by the decision to accept fracking waste, but a second, the Great Lakes, would be under siege as well.
Although the decision to accept fracking waste has international consequences, it appears it is all originating from one state's desire to let the industry in. The timing of the Niagara Falls Water Board's feasibility study appears closely linked to New York State's pending decision to allow fracking. In September, the DEC released a highly anticipated environmental impact study that recommended opening up large parts of the state to fracking. A month later, the DEC released proposed regulations for fracking in the state, including the guidelines for accepting wastewater at treatment plants.
Yet, when asked at a recent online town hall meeting where the fracking wastewater would go, DEC Commissioner Joe Martens answered, "no facilities in New York are currently permitted to accept wastewater from high-volume hydrofracking. I expect that facilities will be modified to safely accept this waste in New York."
This begs the question: Why is New York State considering accepting a destructive industry that creates toxic waste it cannot handle? And how much taxpayer money would be squandered in an attempt to update the state's treatment plants and repair subsequent wear on infrastructure?
It's important to consider not only these monetary costs, but also the costs on the health of residents and their families. The fact is that no cumulative impact study has been performed on the effect of fracking chemicals in drinking water. In the case of Niagara, the community won't even know which chemicals are in the waste because the companies depositing it can keep the composition of the waste a "proprietary" trade secret.
This leads us to our final question: Why Niagara Falls, and not midtown Manhattan? With a median income roughly 40 percent below the state average, Niagara Falls, hard hit by economic woes, is vulnerable to such schemes in order to finance its water infrastructure. It's a classic example of environmental injustice -- burdening a low-income community with a large minority population with the toxic waste generated in other parts of the state. We've seen this play out far too often with polluting industries. But unlike Love Canal, this time local officials would be choosing to accept toxic chemicals into their community in order to generate revenue.
Niagara Falls conjures up images of tourists posing amidst the cool mist spraying off some of the most beautiful, powerful waterfalls in North America. Niagara's waters have been a popular destination vacation spot, a drinking water source for millions and a landmark for two nations. Tragically, these waters have been the target of some of the greatest injustices ever unleashed upon our environment. This time, let's avert Niagara's next environmental disaster before it occurs and stop the Niagara Falls Water Board from succumbing to the fiscal pressure to turn the region into New York's toxic waste dump.
Maude Barlow is national chairwoman of the Council of Canadians, senior adviser on water to the 63rd president of the U.N. General Assembly and chairwoman of Food & Water Watch. Wenonah Hauter is executive director of Food & Water Watch.