N.Y. to rule on fracking, which could affect the Delaware River Water Basin

Rick Williams , a resident of Sanford, supports drilling and has signed a lease with XTO Energy for his 460 acres.
Rick Williams , a resident of Sanford, supports drilling and has signed a lease with XTO Energy for his 460 acres.
Posted: August 29, 2012

SANFORD, N.Y. - Back when Elizabeth and Margaret Davidson were little girls playing along the West Branch of the Delaware River, a ball, maybe, would float away.

And they would say, "Guess it's headed for Philadelphia."

Decades later, that notion has taken on volumes of new meaning.

The Davidsons' bucolic town about 235 river miles upstream of the Ben Franklin Bridge has become a flash point for the expansion of natural gas drilling to New York - and after, to northeastern Pennsylvania, the state's next frontier for hydraulic fracturing.

After putting a hold on hydraulic fracturing in 2008 to study its environmental effects, New York is poised to allow fracking - and could issue its final rules after Labor Day, many in the industry say.

Opponents are concerned enough that more than 1,000 protesters converged Monday on the state capitol in Albany, hoping to convince Gov. Andrew Cuomo that his political future is at risk.

Many feel that a green light in New York would soon lead regulators to open the Delaware River Basin - which provides drinking water for Philadelphians and millions of others - to fracking.

Hydraulic fracturing uses large amounts of water, sand and chemicals injected into a well to break apart shale deposits deep underground to release natural gas. Opposition to fracking raises the potential for water pollution.

The Cuomo administration also has suggested letting towns opt out of drilling. This sets the stage for residents to slug it out town-by-town.

Broome County, at the western edge of the Catskills, is one of five atop the Pennsylvania border where the state is expected to allow limited drilling first.

The Davidsons live in the eastern part of the county, in Sanford - officially a "town," but more a landscape of mountains and country roads bordered by wildflowers. It encompasses part of the historic village of Deposit.

Their combined population of about 4,000 has been falling. Farms are dying. Businesses are closing. Two high school football teams had to merge to get enough players.

The area's youths "go to college, come back, get their stuff and leave," said Rick Williams, a pro-drilling native of Queens, N.Y., who moved here 30 years ago.

Yet the region is underlain by the Marcellus shale, containing what are believed to be plentiful supplies of natural gas. Through it runs the Millennium Pipeline, a major conduit to the New York market.

By now, 47 percent of Sanford's acreage has been leased for natural gas development. Another pipeline through Sanford is proposed.

A crucial dividing line also runs through the region. One side of Tuscarora Mountain - indeed, one side of a house roof atop the mountain, the locals say - flows into the Susquehanna River Basin, where fracking is allowed.

The other side flows into the Delaware River Basin, where fracking is banned.

The discord has turned neighbor against neighbor.

Pro-drilling signs tacked to poles have been obscured with spray-painted. Anti-drillers are ridiculed as "environmental wackos."

Town meetings suddenly have standing room only. As the tension at one recent meeting mounted, supervisor Dewey A. Decker worried about how he'd keep order.

He didn't have a gavel.

"People I knew my whole life, I don't feel comfortable speaking with in the way I used to," lamented Diane MacInnes, a retired teacher whose great-grandmother spent summers on the shores of nearby Lake Oquaga.

Some stay mum - including Carolyn DeNys, co-manager of Deposit's State Theater, built in 1937. It's been rented five times for natural gas programs - from Josh Fox's Gasland to the industry's Truthland - and she wants the theater to remain neutral ground.

But, she said, "there's nobody in the middle. Trust me."

In 2007, with the local economy tanking, Decker, Stanford's supervisor for three decades, went to Pennsylvania to learn about natural gas.

He came back convinced that it could be a lifeline.

Decker printed pamphlets and held an educational meeting at the theater. "I was shocked at the number of people who showed up," he said. "An awful lot of people were trying to save their land."

Decker was one of them.

His Dew Dec Farm had experienced a cascade of setbacks. Among them, a new highway took 107 acres, so he moved uphill. Other farms fell - to the highway, to the nearby Canonsville Reservoir built to ensure New York City's water supply - and his machine business died.

Eventually, he sold 300 acres and figured that the rest of his farm might go, too.

Then Decker and others - including Williams, who has 460 acres - formed a coalition, hired a consultant, and went looking for a gas company, figuring a group could get a better deal.

The 500-member coalition liked the track record of XTO Corp., a subsidiary of ExxonMobil. Not to mention its lease price - $2,411 an acre, plus royalties.

 That meant Decker, with 1,200 acres, got nearly $2.9 million. He isn't crying poor, but almost half of it went for income taxes, he said. As a farmer, he has no pension, no subsidized health insurance.

"It saved my farm," he said.

Like Decker, Elizabeth and Margaret Davidson also traveled to Pennsylvania's natural gas region.

But they came back fearing an environmental disaster.

Hale Eddy, a hamlet where their family has lived for five generations, sits along the West Branch of the Delaware River, a trout-fishing mecca.

For Elizabeth, who lives in a cottage 36 steps above the river, "my number-one concern is what happens to the quality of the water here."

Not long ago, she was on a plane from Binghamton that gave her a view of cleared areas and well pads of the nearby Dimock, Pa., area. "I just had a lump in my throat," she said.

Her sister, a nurse and a mother, fears the despoiling of the countryside. "You wouldn't build your house and raise your kids in an industrial zone."

Both are part of an opposition group that obtained 400 signatures on a petition seeking a one-year moratorium in Sanford.

About 100 other towns have passed bans. But Tom Shepstone, of the industry's Energy in Depth Northeast Marcellus Initiative, scoffed that many are meaningless. They're not in areas that would be drilled anyway, he said. "Why don't they outlaw pineapple groves, too?"

Elizabeth Davidson, an architect, said her business has suffered. With the uncertainty, no one wants to build.

Her husband, Leonard Piorkowski, is a retired teacher and real estate agent. Five years ago, sales were booming. Speculators were buying large parcels of vacant land.

Now, "no one wants to inherit someone else's lease," he said. Vacation homebuyers ask about natural gas, and then don't call back.

Just as it's neighbor versus neighbor in town, Piorkowski has wound up at odds with his daughter, Elin Barton.

She lives in Binghamton, also in Broome County, and is CEO of White Knight Productions, a video company she formed in 2009.

It was struggling until Cabot Oil hired it to work on a movie about drilling. More Cabot work followed.

In the course of it, Barton came to respect the industry.

She and her father "have agreed to disagree and not talk about this at family gatherings," she said.

As New York's decision nears, Rick Williams' phone has been ringing. Lease-holders want updates.

"You can't keep delaying this," Williams said of natural gas development. "This is the best thing, economically, that New York has on the table."

Williams recently put a banner on a rental house he owns in Deposit. "Drill a Gas Well, Bring a Soldier Home."

"Why are we spilling blood over there? Why pay for foreign oil when we have natural resources here?" asked Mike Lynch, a relative of Williams' who lives in the house.

Lynch, a carpenter, can't find work. He plans to leave for New Jersey to find a job. His wife, who has one, will stay.

But protesters are ramping up. On Wednesday, more than 140 celebrities - including Bonnie Raitt, Paul McCartney, Yoko Ono, Sean Lennon, and Lady Gaga - plan to launch a coalition, Artists Against Fracking, to pressure Cuomo.

As for XTO, it wound up with leases on 43,000 acres in Broome and neighboring Delaware County - but 95 percent of it is in the Delaware River Basin.

Drilling proponents and opponents figure a go-ahead in New York would put the heat on the Delaware River Basin Commission.

The five-member group - controlled by New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware and the U.S. government - developed drilling rules in anticipation of ending the moratorium. But it postponed a vote after Delaware balked.

New York's vote, widely considered to be a no, would now likely change to a yes, joining Pennsylvania and, probably, New Jersey.

Still, it's not as if gas companies are poised to head in.

John Conrad, a Poughkeepsie environmental consultant and member of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, said companies plan far ahead and have committed resources to places with more certainty.

Also, New York's rules, likely to be stricter than those in other states, will make drilling more expensive, he said.

Meanwhile, the initial gas company payments - about $110 million for Decker's group alone - were not enough to shore up Deposit.

People bought new cars and put additions onto their homes, Williams said. But the hardware store continues to struggle. The town's last bar closed nearly a year ago.

Mostly, conversations with people here seem to end on a sad note, no matter their views.

"It's very hard to have a full discussion with people," said Kathy Klopchin, who lives east of Sanford.

After more than 40 years in public life, "I hate politics anymore," said Decker, 77. Divisiveness rules, from the national level down to Sanford. "Nobody works together."


Contact Sandy Bauers at 215-854-5147, sbauers@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter @sbauers. Read her blog, GreenSpace, at www.philly.com/greenspace

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