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Roadblock for seismic testing thumper trucks?

Seismic testing generates waves of concern

By FRITZ MAYER

NARROWSBURG, NY — “They create earthquakes underground.” That’s how one official described the activity of thumper trucks, though their actual mission is to engage in seismic testing to help drilling companies understand the makeup of the various layers of materials deep underground.

Essentially, thumper trucks come equipped with a large metal foot, which stomps on the ground. The action creates seismic waves that bounce off the rocks below and are then recorded and measured by instruments on the ground. This information is then sold to drilling companies to help determine the best place to drill for gas or oil.

The Town of Tusten is holding a public hearing on September 29 to hear comments about whether the town should declare a six-month moratorium on seismic testing on the roads of Tusten. The four other towns that are working with Tusten on performing road assessments in advance of what will likely be a lot of gas drilling in the region, are also addressing the issue; the towns are Highland, Delaware, Cochecton and, most recently, Lumberland.

Tusten supervisor Ben Johnson said the testing activity will come before the drilling activity begins, so the town board decided the issue needed to be addressed soon. The fact that a thumper truck operator showed up at the town hall on September 8, seeking a permit to work, added a bit of urgency to the matter.

Johnson said the board would use the six-month moratorium time to write an ordinance that would cover seismic-testing activity.

Johnson said seismic activity has been done in the past with no problem, back in the ’60s and ’70s, but the board wanted to be sure that should any problems arise the town would be protected. Of specific concern is any possible damage to wells or the Narrowsburg sewer system. Also, the board wants to be sure town roads are protected against excessive wear. He added that after the moratorium, a permit will be needed to conduct seismic tests.

Along with possible damage, however, is another question being asked not only here, but in neighboring counties: who actually owns the right to the data gathered by the thumpers. The trucks not only get information from under the road or parcel on which they’re located, but also from neighboring properties.

Farmers in New York’s Southern Tier have been arguing that collecting data from underneath their property without their permission and without compensation is tantamount to theft.

Representatives from the gas companies have argued that the information is similar to gas itself, and that if they can get it out of the ground, it’s there for the taking.

Others say many people are attempting to profit from gas drilling in one way or another, and landowners should be compensated for information taken from under their land, especially information that helps gas companies strike it rich.

Wes Gillingham, program director of Catskill Mountainkeeper, said the information collected by seismic testing could give one side a bargaining advantage. “Suppose you’re a landowner and testing from outside your property shows that you’re in a real sweet spot for drilling. The gas company isn’t going to give you that information, so that would give the gas company an advantage.”

Some people are taking the issue very seriously. According to an article in the Press & Sun-Bulletin, Bradd Vickers, president of the Chenango County Farm Bureau, recently chased away a caravan of thumpers from a road in the Town of Preston after a brief test of wills.

Vickers wants towns to require the testing companies to get permission from landowners as part of the process of getting a permit.

Contributed photo
Thumper trucks like this one take seismic readings of underground features to guide drilling companies in their quest for gas or oil. (Click for larger version)