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Bethel public hearing on drilling ban; one more time, with passion

By Fritz Mayer
March 21, 2012

Four years into it, the voices raised in the public debate about gas drilling and fracking can bring just as much passion to their arguments as they did at the outset. Four years into it, new voices continue to join the debate on both sides of the issue.

The public debate about gas drilling played out once again at the Town of Bethel public hearing on March 15, regarding the adoption of a zoning amendment that would ban drilling and other high impact uses in the town. Of the approximately 40 people who spoke, six were opposed to the ban.

The arguments were mostly familiar: those opposed to the ban said the town needs the jobs and revenue that would come with drilling; those opposed expressed concern over the impacts on health, the environment, water, air, serenity and property values.

A few speakers, however, brought new or unexpected information. Bethel resident Maura Stone said she was an executive “for the highest-rated utility in the nation,” a company that was famously investigated and eventually brought to justice by environmental legal icon Erin Brockovich. In Stone’s former job, she said, “I made sure the energy company was not responsible for anything in every transaction they did.” She warned that doing business with the drilling companies could be financially risky. She said, “Beware of dancing with the devil in the pale moonlight.”

A couple of people, including resident Laura Berger, painted the ongoing debate as an epic struggle between regular folks on one side and large corporations and big government who have no concern for the welfare of the community or anything other than the bottom line on the other. Berger said, “We are the ones that will stop this: not the government, not the industry. The people sitting in this room, who have the intelligence and the care and the love of this land and the knowledge of what is going on here—we, the grass roots, will stop this.” She said the entire nation is waiting to see what Bethel and other New York towns will do.

On the other side of the issue, a couple of the people who spoke against the ban warned that the proposed amendment was tantamount to a “taking” and that passing the amendment risked lawsuits from drilling companies that the town could not afford.