By Mark Scheer
NIAGARA FALLS —
City lawmakers received something on Monday that they don’t receive very often, if at all — not one, but two standing ovations.
The first applause followed the council’s unanimous vote in favor of a new law that bans hydrofracking-related activities, including the treatment of so-called “fracking” waste, within city limits.
The second came after the council agreed to send a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo asking him to impose a statewide moratorium on the controversial natural extraction process until more is known about its impact on public health and the environment.
“I hope the governor gets the big picture here and bans it statewide,” said Council Chairman Sam Fruscione, who is expecting the council’s letter to be delivered to Cuomo within the next few days.
The council’s anti-fracking position follows speculation that the city’s water board may be interested in accepting hydrofracking waste water as a way to boost its bottomline. The state as a whole — through the New York Department of Environmental Conservation — is still in the process of developing guidelines for the fracking industry, but council members said they wanted to make sure they took an affirmative stand on the issue. The ordinance adopted Monday — patterned after a similar ban imposed by the City of Buffalo and other communities in recent months — describes hydrofracking and the handling of waste from the process as posing a “significant threat” to the “health, safety and welfare” of residents in Niagara Falls. It also suggests that any involvement in the process within city limits could cause “irreperable harm” to the city’s water supply and may cause significant health problems for city residents. The law prohibits any individual or company from engaging in natural gas extraction practices and from storing, treating, transferring or disposing of wastes from such activities. Violators would be subject to fines. The law allows enforcement action to be taken in New York State Supreme Court and the provisions can be enforced “by any resident” through court action. The ordinance took effect upon the council’s approval.
“The subject of hydrofracking is something that is going to effect everyone in our community,” said Councilman Glenn Choolokian, an employee of the city’s water board who pushed for the anti-fracking measures. “This dangerous process must be addressed now. It can’t be talked about in secret meetings anymore. If hydrofracking is such a great thing, let some other city be the test case.”
Questions remain about the city’s legal standing when it comes to attempting to enforce such a ban against another entity like the water board which operates under a state authority. Recent favorable rulings from a pair of state supreme court justices have offered support to municipalities looking to enforce such bans. The city’s ordinance was crafted from one recently adopted by the city of Buffalo. Council members said they are confident it will survive scrutiny if tested in court.
“I’m sure we will be sued, but our job is to serve the city,” Fruscione said.
“We’ll see what happens,” added Choolokian. “I feel very confident with the help we had on this.”
In Niagara Falls, fracking itself is not so much the concern as the treatment of waste water from the process which forces millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into shale formations to force the release of petroleum and natural gas. Advocates say the process is safe and will lead to cheaper fuel prices and the creation of jobs. Critics argue that there are still too many unknowns about the process, suggesting chemicals involved in fracking can be hazardous to human health and may have a negative impact on local water supplies. Residents, city leaders and representatives from several environmental groups voiced similar concerns in the months following the Niagara Falls water board’s discussion about its possible interest in being a repository for hydrofracking wastewater which would be brought in by truck or rail and either reused in drilling or discharged into the Niagara River.
“Why are we even considering it?” said Pierce Avenue resident Karen Labosky, one of nine hydrofracking opponents who spoke in favor of the city’s ban on Monday. “I don’t understand why we are.”
Roger Spurback, president of the Niagara Falls Block Club Council, and Ron Anderluh, revitalization coordinator for the Niagara Street Business Association, were among those who spoke in favor of imposing a ban on hydrofracking activities in the Falls.
“Tonirght, together, we draw the line in the sand against an industry and the state that desires to ruin this community,” Spurback said. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. A tip of our hats for your response.”
Other speakers came from as far away as Niagara Falls, Ontario and Getzville, offering similar messages that they do not believe it would be in the best interests of the city of Niagara Falls or the state of New York to get involved in any aspect of the hydrofracking business.
“Metaphorically speaking, why turn Niagara Falls into a giant toilet and flush the residual toxic waste over the Falls?,” said Andrea Duncan, a speaker from Niagara Falls, Ont.