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As New York state ponders hydrofracking, Auburn overturns ban on gas drilling waste water at municipal treatment plant

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Published: Sunday, March 11, 2012, 8:13 PM     Updated: Monday, March 12, 2012, 8:21 AM

Syracuse, N.Y. -- The Auburn City Council voted last week to overturn its ban on gas drilling waste water at its treatment plant and to start taking the water again.

Two days earlier, the Niagara Falls City Council had voted to ban all natural gas drilling activity in the city, including allowing trucks to move drilling waste water to the regional treatment plant.

The differing approaches demonstrate once again that dealing with drilling waste water is going to be one of the biggest environmental and political challenges the state will face if it decides to allow high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or hydrofracking, to start in New York.

The massive environmental report on hydrofracking released last year by the state Department of Environmental Conservation projects that hydrofracking could use 9 billion gallons of water a year. Much of that water will be re-used by drillers, but the rest must be treated or injected into underground wells.

In Auburn, the city had been taking waste water from traditional gas wells for years before the council banned that practice last July. A new council overturned that ban last week, and the city plans to resume taking that waste water again.

“That’s the water we’ve been taking it in for over 14 years, and there’s been no damage at all to the plant,” said new city councilor Peter Ruzicka, who voted to start accepting the water again.

The resolution adopted last week specifically excludes hydrofracking waste water, and councilors say the plant’s permit from the state forbids it anyway.

The Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance pushed for last year’s ban, and was at last week’s meeting to protest the lifting of the ban.

“I don’t want to see Auburn, New York, become the toxic waste water capital of New York state,” said Terry Cuddy, a member of the alliance. “That’s what would happen if they opened up the door an inch. If they open it up an inch, they can open it up a mile.”

City Manager Doug Shelby said the gas drilling waste water made up less than one-half of 1 percent of the treatment plant water flow.

In hydrofracking, wells are drilled thousands of feet below the ground and extended thousands of feet horizontally in layers of shale. Drillers inject millions of gallons of water and chemicals at high pressure to fracture the rock and release natural gas.

Those shale layershave high levels of salt — several times that of sea water — and radioactive metals that come back up with the drilling water, said Brian Rahm, a research assistant at the New York State Water Resources Institute. Only two public treatment plants in the state — Niagara Falls and North Tonawanda — are capable of treating that waste, Rahm said. Those two plants have a special chemical process to handle that waste, unlike standard sewage-processing plants, he said.

“Biological-driven plants are very good at removing nutrients like sewage from the water,” Rahm said, “but they’re not designed or equipped to handle high-strength waste in terms of metals and salts and things like that.”

The Onondaga County waste water plant doesn’t have the technology to process hydrofracking waste water and doesn’t plan to get it, said Tom Rhoads, commissioner of the county’s Department of Water Environment Protection.

“It’s not something that’s on our radar screen,” Rhoads said.

The Niagara Falls council voted last week to ban all natural gas activity in the city, including the transport of waste water. The city does not run the treatment plant, but council President Sam Fruscione said the transportation ban will essentially prevent the independent Niagara Falls Water Board from treating fracking waste.

“They’d have to bring it in by helicopter,” Fruscione said.

Fruscione said the tourist city, still dogged by the Love Canal pollution scandal of the 1970s, wants nothing to do with potential toxins.

“The last thing I need is 200 trucks a day carrying waste in a city that’s growing itself back into a tourist attraction,” he said.

The DEC report says drillers must have a plan to dispose of waste water, but doesn’t say what those plans must contain.

DEC is still finishing the report, and expects to issue regulations on hydrofracking sometime this year.

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