New York State banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing, also known as fracking, in 2014, but the city wants to go one step further and ban all fracking byproducts, making it illegal to discharge, dispose, sell, or use waste produced from hydraulic fracking in the city limits.
If you're wondering why someone would sell fracking waste, it's not as bizarre as it sounds: in large portions of New York and Pennsylvania, the latter of which has not banned the controversial drilling practice, sanitation departments use a fracking byproduct known as "natural gas production brine" in place of salt to de-ice roads. Contact with fracking byproducts can put people at risk for damage to the heart, brain, liver, and reproductive system, and a bill up for consideration by the City Council would effectively eliminate that risk for city residents.
The Cuomo administration's 2014 ban specifically prohibits high-volume hydraulic fracturing; however, low-volume fracking, which uses and subsequently contaminates comparatively less water than its high-volume and high-profile counterpart, continues. Low-volume fracking still produces toxic waste, though to a lesser degree, but the state does not classify such waste as hazardous, and it's therefore not subject to the same laws that govern the management of hazardous waste.
The proposed legislation targets this loophole in the state ban, and is also intended to prevent fracking waste from Pennsylvania from being deposited at any of the city's 14 wastewater treatment plants. Since 2010, Pennsylvania drilling operations have dumped at least 460,000 tons of fracking waste at New York state wastewater treatment plants, according to a 2015 report.
Councilmember Stephen Levin, the prime sponsor of the bill, emphasized that because the effects of fracking waste on human health are still somewhat unknown, it's important to be preemptive in avoiding any potential hazards down the road.
"Often we don't know the impact until years later," Levin said at the bill's hearing on Monday. "I think of first responders at 9/11 and the type of exposure that they saw, and at the time you had the head of the EPA and various other authority figures saying that the exposure was safe. And as we all know now it was very, very unsafe, and there are many people that paid with their lives.... We need to be proactive in protecting the health of New York City residents."
Currently, the city's Department of Sanitation does not use any fracking byproducts to deice roads; rather, it uses salt and calcium chloride ice melt. However, the practice is not illegal in the city, and has been approved in portions of 41 municipalities throughout the state. Mayor de Blasio opposes the use of the brine on city streets, Levin said, but that doesn't mean a future administration couldn't allow it.
Numerous environmental activists spoke in favor of the bill at today's hearing, though nearly every speaker advocated for an important amendment: increase the fine for noncompliance with a ban from $100, as currently proposed, to $25,000. As United for Action member Ling Tsao pointed out, "the fine for certain parking violations or not picking up after our dogs is more than $100."
Indeed, even a $25,000 fine was too low for some who testified. Marjorie Shaub, a member of an advocacy group that works across New York and Pennsylvania to protest fracking and other environmental hazards, said that she'd like to see a fine of as much as $100,000.
"Water is a sacred and necessary treasure," she said. "For all our futures we cannot risk its further degradation."