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October 01, 2014
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News Analysis: fracking in Cochecton; divisiveness is ‘heartbreaking’


Fracking is already thriving in Sullivan County. Not the same controversial natural gas extraction method that makes headlines. No, this is community fracking, the social byproduct of the hydraulic fracturing debate, pumping tension through Sullivan County communities that face the possibility of gas wells dotting their landscape.

At a public meeting on October 17 to discuss fracking in Cochecton, it was clear that community fracking is flourishing. “It’s tragic to see what this issue is doing to this community,” said Robin McClernon. Farmer John Gorzynski declared from the podium, “To see the divisiveness that this has caused is heartbreaking for me.”

The layers of the issue are similar to the layers of the earth. The fracking blade first cuts through the crust, for our purposes the federal government. Both presidential candidates support natural gas extraction, with President Obama boasting, “We still continue to open up new areas for drilling. We continue to make it a priority for us to go after natural gas. We’ve got potentially 600,000 jobs and a hundred years’ worth of energy right beneath our feet with natural gas.”

As the blade cuts deeper into the mantle, the issue gets passed to the state and the office of Governor Cuomo. Cuomo is awaiting Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) regulations and a health impact study before making a decision about fracking. Arguably, this is the level that has the greatest impact on the future of the region. At the center, like the earth, is the core, made up of tightly-knit communities whose residents now argue, put signs on their lawns and utilize social media to plead their case. The core nucleus is a hard-fast group of concerned residents who have made up their minds.

The passion, and the science surrounding the issue, is as diverse as the small town itself, where fifth-generation farmers share property lines with second-home freelance writers. Gorzynski, who bought his farm in 1979, walked stiffly to the podium after a long day in his fields planting garlic. “If there’s a safe way to do this, I’m a land owner, I’d love to make a couple bucks the easy way. I’ve worked hard in my life.” But his livelihood is on the line, he says, whether fracking proves toxic or not. “Customers at my market in New York City weekly ask me if they have allowed fracking yet in our area. They won’t be customers of mine anymore when it’s approved.”

Lifelong resident Doug Johnson challenged the board. “We evolve or we die. Fracking has been happening for over 100 years. Fracking has evolved, too. You can choose to be a model and leader for other small towns who face a similar decision. If you have the power to ban fracking, you also have the power to nurture it and decide how, where and when it happens.”
The medical industry was represented at the meeting, too. Quoting from the American Medical Journal, president of the Sullivan County Medical Society, Dr. Paul Salzburg, told a story of two girls who lived near wells in New Mexico.

Suffering from facial lesions, healing began only after they stopped drinking tap water at their homes. He concluded, “The Medical Society of the state of New York asks that fracking not be permitted until a health assessment can be authorized and completed.”

Was that an isolated incident? Wayne Townsend thinks so. He is a Cochecton landowner, a graduate of the former Jeffersonville-Youngsville School District and petroleum engineer, who now lives amid 20,000 highly regulated wells in Farmington, NM. Life, he says, is good. “I come from an arid area and groundwater is a prized possession,” he says, “My children have grown up there, I have grandkids and no issues.” He believes gas can be extracted safely with stringent regulation. “I don’t think it’s the fracturing itself that creates the problem. I think there should be some concern about getting back the wastewater. And when you recover the fluids, you have to dispose of it safely.”

The Cochecton Town Board seems equally diverse. Councilperson Richard Schulman announced he is for a moratorium, Larry Richardson is going to digest more information, while Edwin Grund and Anna Story reserved comment.

Supervisor Gary Maas is vocal about his neutrality, waiting for the regulations from the DEC. The November deadline for a decision from the governor is a big day, he says. “If they miss that November 29 deadline, that will require them, when they do put the regulations out, to hold a public hearing again. That would be to our benefit to miss that November deadline.” It also gives the town time to study the regulations.

In the meantime, the drills of community fracturing will continue to rip through the area.