By Larry Beahan
Ordinary old-fashioned oil and gas exploration has been destroying countryside for 100 years. Ask Tom Fino and members of the East Lovejoy Sportsman Club. They own 35 acres in the hills northeast of Allegany State Park. Dodge Creek, an ideal little trout stream, rushes down a gully through their property.
"Their property." I have to qualify that. The club owns the land; an oil company owns its mineral rights. The law allows the oil company to do pretty much whatever it needs to in order to extract the oil and gas a few hundred feet beneath the property. The company has cut roads and installed pumps, storage tanks and brine pits. It began years ago, but the company continues to extract small quantities of petroleum through aging equipment while the sportsmen try to enjoy the outdoors around this industrial mess.
On March 23, one of the brine storage pits started leaking into Dodge Creek, home to the club's treasured trout. Fino brought the story to our last Sierra Club meeting, along with 100 or more photos of rotting oil tanks, plastic-lined waste ponds and oil-slick coated creeks. Contamination of the creek launched a surge of anger, legal consultation, frustrated rage and reporting to the Department of Environmental Conservation and groups like Sierra.
In response, I contacted Officer Greg Sutton at the DEC's Buffalo office. He confirmed that spill #1114279 had occurred off Jordan Road in Allegany County. Investigators found petroleum leaking into surface water due to "equipment failure." Sutton explained that the case was still open because the investigating officers were taking legal action that would make certain the oil well operators would repair the failing equipment and clean up the spilled oil.
Sutton then went on patiently to explain that there are 10,000 of these old wells in the wooded hills and gullies of three Western New York counties: Allegany, Cattaraugus and Chautauqua. The world's oil was first commercially exploited in these counties and in nearby Pennsylvania. Some of these old wells still operate, some have been sealed and many have been abandoned. He made it clear that the DEC does the best it can, but it simply does not have the people to supervise this glut of hundred-year-old wells.
The Dodge Creek horror tale is about plain, old-fashioned petroleum well drilling. It is not a fracking problem. But imagine Fino up on Jordan Road trying to fish Dodge Creek alongside a five-acre, high-volume horizontal Marcellus shale wellhead that is spouting radioactive brine and fracking fluids. Imagine Sutton trying to regulate 10,000 of these unwelcome intruders.
Tell Gov. Andrew Cuomo you'd prefer a solar array or a windmill on that Allegany hilltop instead of the mess on Dodge Creek.
Larry Beahan is conservation chairman of the Sierra Club Niagara Group.