Monday, January 12, 2015

The Hydrofracking Report In Historical Perspective

George Bellows - Up the Hudson (1908)Governor Andrew Cuomo’s decision in December to ban the use of hydrofracking in New York State was politically astute. The governor asserted he is merely following the recommendations in a new report from the State Health Department, A Public Review of High Volume Hydraulic Fracturing for Shale Gas Development.

That report, based on four years of research, is also politically judicious. It avoids condemning hydrofracking or sensationalizing its potential health risks. Instead, it concludes that “the overall weight of the evidence from the cumulative body of information” studied for the report demonstrates that there are “significant uncertainties about the kinds of adverse health outcomes that may be associated with HVHF [High Volume Hydraulic Fracking], the likelihood of the occurrence of adverse health outcomes, and the effectiveness of some of the mitigation measures in reducing or preventing environmental impact which could adversely affect public health.” The 184-page report is buttressed by 74 references, mostly well-documented studies and reports from the past few years.

Cuomo is following in a tradition of New York governors who relied on expert, scientific reports as a basis for making policy on hard environmental issues. Their are a number of examples that demonstrate both the strengths and limitations of this approach.

For instance, in 1907, Governor Charles Evans Hughes (1907-1910) asked the State Health Department for advice about pollution of the Hudson River. That department’s 1906 annual report had declared stream and lake pollution “a sin against the public health, a crime that strikes a deadly blow at the comfort and lives of our fellow citizens.”

Hughes anticipated a report recommending strong state action, but the Department’s commissioner, Dr. Eugene Porter, was independent and unpredictable and his 1908 report to the governor was surprisingly equivocal. Industrial wastes discharged into streams “do not carry with them the germs of disease and probably very few bacteria at all, and… many of the chemicals discharged with them will have germicidal properties,” the report stated, so their potential harmful effects should be regarded as “very slight.” But at the end, the report shifted its tone, declaring that “the conditions found to exist in the Hudson river constitute a public nuisance, causing injury, inconvenience, annoyance and discomfort.”

In light of the inconclusive report, Hughes straddled the issue. In his 1909 annual legislative message, he condemned pollution of the state’s waters but warned that the state’s industries could suffer if forced to institute expensive waste treatments. He called for “proper experimentation under state authority in order that as soon as possible means may be devised for a complete protection of our streams from pollution without industrial dislocation.” Hughes endorsed a bill expanding Health Department authority to investigate and regulate pollution but did not actively work for its passage and the bill quietly died.

Governor Alfred E. Smith (1919-1921, 1923-1929) asked the Conservation Commission (predecessor to today’s Department of Environmental Conservation) for a report and recommendation on stream pollution. The report, issued in 1923, decried the “popular tendency to exaggerate the destructive effects of stream pollution and to impute to it many ill effects for which it may be only in a minor measure responsible.” Most chemical pollutants pouring into streams are quickly diluted and scattered, posing little threat, it argued.

In fact, the report found, using a stream to dispose of “the wastes of life and human activity” was “the most natural use of a stream”. The whole issue needed more study, the Commission insisted: “There is general lack of exact information as to all phenomena connected with the subject, so that the setting up of standards of allowable pollution is a matter of great difficulty.” Its main recommendation was creation of a new “Conservancy Commission” to further study and develop regulations to control pollution. That recommendation ran counter to Smith’s plans to reorganize and consolidate state government, already well along. The governor continued the Health Department and created a Conservation Department to supersede the Conservation Commission. The report did not provide a concrete basis for policy to address the pollution issue and Smith did not pursue the issue.

Governor Thomas E. Dewey (1943-1955) took a more deliberate, synchronized approach. He worked with legislative leaders who created a Subcommittee on Pollution under a joint legislative committee on interstate cooperation. The subcommittee’s report, released early in 1949 after over two years of study, expressed alarm and urgency about water pollution. More than a billion gallons of untreated filth was flowing into New York’s water courses every day, said the subcommittee’s chair: “The staggering burden borne by New York’s waters consists of raw sewage from 115 municipalities with a population of 4,726,000 plus corrosive or putrid wastes from thousands of industries.” The report recommended creation of a Water Pollution Control Board, consisting of the commissioners of Health, Conservation, Agriculture and Markets, Commerce and the Superintendent of Public Works, to regulate discharge of sewage, industrial and other wastes into lakes and streams.

In his 1949 annual message to the legislature, Dewey called for “prompt action” based on the report and he worked quickly with legislative leaders on a bill to carry out the report’s recommendations. The bill garnered the support of the State Conference of Mayors and New York City authorities who were alarmed at the report’s documentation of danger to municipal water supplies. The business community mostly acquiesced, recognizing that there would be little risk of overly-restrictive anti-pollution regulations from a board comprised of Dewey’s appointees, since the governor was pro-business. The bill passed easily a few weeks after introduction, a triumph for shrewd use of a report to precipitate action.

Of course, there were reports and anti-pollution policy documents after that. The evidence cited above however, shows that reports can lead to policy formulation, but only when they are decisive and governors know how to use them. Governors Hughes and Smith received equivocal reports from their experts, which frustrated policy action. Governors Dewey and Cuomo had well-documented, concrete reports that framed the issue and advanced definite recommendations.

This post first appeared at The New York History Blog.

Illustration: George Bellows, “Up the Hudson” (1908).

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Bruce Dearstyne

Dr. Bruce W. Dearstyne served on the staff of the New York State Office of State History and the State Archives. He was a professor and is now an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies and has written widely about New York history and occasionally writes about New York history issues for the “Perspective” section of the Sunday Albany Times Union. Bruce is the author of two books forthcoming in 2015: The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History (SUNY Press) and also Leading the Historical Enterprise: Strategic Creativity, Planning and Advocacy for the Digital Age (Rowman and Littlefield and the AASLH).




6 Responses

  1. Charlie S says:

    For the first time in a long stretch it felt good to be a New Yorker when this decision to ban hydrofracking in New York State hit the daily rags. I thought for sure that Cuomo and the DEC were going to side with the corporate swine on this one. Big industry finally lost a round! Joy!

    It was more than just about water pollution it was about noise and light pollution also. It was about taking away that rural small-town feel which many communities in this state are blessed to still have.It was about the corporate machine always having their way at the expense of all things else.

    I can remember vividly some few years ago sitting on a wooded hillside in Schoharie County on a fall day where not the noise of automation wreaked havoc on the ears. I was taking-in the serenity of those woods when at once I heard the honks of a few geese as a flock approached way up high in the sky.I heard them long minutes as they approached,heard them long minutes after they passed over.Just one car passing would have drowned them out totally. There are places where one can sit in the countryside of New York at night and hear the hoot of an owl..or the barks and whines and howls of coyotes..from great distances. That is how quiet much of New York’s countryside still is.Hydrofracking would have taken that experience away wherever the rigs for the extracting process would have been set up,even if five miles away. The light from their rigs at night would have ruined sky-watchers views for sure. It was more than just about our clean water though that is what we heard about the most from the protesters.It was also about the charm and magic in nature that many of us still hold dear.

    Like Vermont,there are many places in New York State where one can go and feel like he or she has stepped back in time,where the landscape has not yet been plundered and ruined by the industrial machine.I am very grateful for this as so many of us are.There’s more to life than plastic! I imagine many Pennsylvania landscapes as industrial wastelands thanks to the hydrofracking they allowed,and wherever else it is allowed.

    This hydrofracking issue has been a hot issue and most certainly a lot of thoughtful,intelligent,caring,good people are happy over this decision including me. Many people aren’t happy about it,namely the members of the Joint Landowners Coalition of New York who are evidently from that same school whose members are a prevailing force in this society,who would sell their souls for a dollar……at the expense of all things else!

    Thank you Governor Cuomo and the NYDEC!

  2. Bruce says:

    I sent a copy of the report and Health Dept. letter to the NC Governor, because fracking is a very contentious issue right now in North Carolina.

  3. Paul says:

    This is a very good article.

    I think that the governor made the right decision here.

    But I think that this particular report was not very decisive? It basically reports that there are “significant uncertainties” as to the impact of the process on health.

    For opponents and proponents it really leaves open the question of wether or not there is a public health impact?

    I think that the negative impact on tourism (a key part of the finger lakes economic base) was reason enough to ban the practice. I do feel bad for the landowners that were hoping that this could help them out economically. Like the rest of us they are struggling with things like how to pay for their kids to go to college etc. And doing it in an age where it is more and more difficult to make a living in agriculture. But in the end someone always has to lose something.

  4. Bruce says:

    Selling one’s mineral rights can be a good or bad thing. The good part is the money received, especially if a deal to include substantial royalties is struck. On the other side, it’s possible (and amply demonstrated in W.VA, and KY coal fields) for your land to actually disappear from under your house. Once a company acquires mineral rights, they are often ruthless about getting the most bang for the buck, and it matters little if your house is on top or not.

    Yes, the article may not have been decisive, but I believe that was the point. Until there is better evidence of health issues or not, the governor’s decision to not go there was a wise one, rather than forge ahead and discover decades later it was a gross mistake. It’s always better to close the door before the horse gets out, than afterwards.

    • Paul says:

      I agree. But if the report concluded that there WERE adverse impacts on health rather than concluding that there COULD BE adverse impacts on health this would not continue to be as much of a political football.

      At some point the lack of credible evidence that something exists means that it probably does not exists. You can never be certain but you can be pretty sure. If you don’t find that there is a problem then there isn’t really a problem and the opportunity to do this will resurface (probably when oil prices rise again in the future).

      Too bad politician can no longer simply say that something is just a bad idea and just move on.

      • Bruce says:

        I agree, Paul. Just because you’ve dealt with the horse getting out today, doesn’t mean you won’t have to again in the future.

        Beautiful Asheville has its own little Love Canal, although monitoring of the site has so far not indicated folks need to move. It’s now up to the politicians and the government to get it cleaned up, for whatever that’s worth.

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