By Arthur J. Giacalone
The issues surrounding the natural gas extraction process known as hydraulic fracturing or “fracking” are complex environmentally and politically for a politician such as Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, who has made economic development the centerpiece of his administration.
The industry touts the jobs and economic benefits hydraulic fracturing would purportedly bring. Environmental advocates oppose fracking due to its potential to pollute the state’s water and air and threaten human health.
Cuomo has promised that his decision will be based on “the science” and “the facts,” and not on politics. That assurance rings hollow given the governor’s handling of two Buffalo projects.
On Sept. 5, Cuomo announced his plans for the outer harbor. Nearly 400 acres of lakefront property will be transferred from the Niagara Frontier Transportation Authority to the Erie Canal Harbor Development Corp. The governor’s press release proclaims that his plan – to invite new investment and businesses and develop a state park including Buffalo’s first-ever swimming beach – “will build on our ongoing efforts to spur economic development, increase tourism and create jobs for the whole region.”
Cuomo’s announcement was not preceded by the review envisioned by the State Environmental Quality Review Act. Designed to produce “the science” and “the facts,” the 1975 legislation mandates an objective assessment of potential adverse environmental impacts “at the earliest possible time” in the decision-making process.
Had SEQRA been complied with prior to the Cuomo administration’s announcement, the issues raised in a recent investigative report may have altered the governor’s plans. The outer harbor fails to meet minimum water quality standards. The harbor floor is potentially contaminated with PCBs. Two “Class 2 Superfund sites” are located upstream from the proposed beach site. And, a nearby storm water discharge drain belches untreated bacteria and chemicals directly into the Lake Erie waters following heavy rains.
Press releases issued on Sept. 26 by the governor’s office and NFTA treat the conveyance of NFTA’s 400 acres to the ECHDC as a fait accompli, announcing that the NFTA board will sell “its remaining land” at the outer harbor to a Canadian outdoor furniture manufacturer, Gracious Living Corp., for $4.7 million. In return, the buyer will receive $2 million in tax credits from the state.
Neither the NFTA’s decision to sell the parcel to Gracious Living, nor the approval of $2 million in tax credits, was preceded by SEQRA review.
Cuomo did not let science or the facts impede his political goals for New York. Should we expect the fracking decision to be treated any differently?
Arthur J. Giacalone is an attorney who has focused on environmental and land use issues for two decades.