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What we know & what we don't

Wednesday, January 23, 2013 - Updated: 5:32 PM

Perhaps more than any other place in New York, the capital region knows that science matters. An unswimmable Hudson and a half-billion dollar PCB dredging project just up the river from Albany are costly proof of what happens when we make decisions on incomplete knowledge.

It's a good time to remember this as New York winds down its review of high volume horizontal hydraulic fracturing -- popularly known as fracking. There are disturbing signs that, even after more than four years, we don't have the knowledge to make a fully informed decision.

We realize the state is eager to be business-friendly. We also understand that fortunes large and small are riding on whether New York lets the gas industry sink its drills into the gas-rich Marcellus shale.

The question is simply this: What's the risk to human health and the environment? We're not convinced the state Department of Environmental Conservation knows -- especially when some scientists and physicians are saying they aren't sure.

Of course, the drilling industry has been assuring the public that all is perfectly safe, but we've learned that isn't so. The industry, for example, wanted to drill in the Catskills watershed, which New York City depends upon for drinking water; now that's off the table. DEC says it is reconsidering whether to allow drilling near New York City's two aging aqueducts -- the only two ways all that water can get to the city.

The industry also wanted to be able to dispose of at least some of the tens of millions of gallons of toxic, potentially radioactive fluid used in the drilling process by spreading it on roads as a de-icer. One might as well just pour this directly into streams and aquifers. To its credit, DEC says it doesn't favor this idea -- at this time.

Scientists warn that there are many things they don't yet know about the fracking process. They're still learning about the effect on human health of constant noise and light from activities like gas drilling. Geologists are looking at a marked rise in earthquakes in some parts of the country where there has been an increase in fracking or deep well drilling for fracking fluid disposal. And some wonder if, when the entire production process is considered, natural gas is as clean as its proponents say.

And then there's a potentially key document -- a health study on fracking that's being done by the state Department of Health -- that has yet to be finished or made public. The state has engaged a group of scientists to review the Health Department study, but that review is secret, too. The DEC says it will consider whether the findings of the Health Department raise any significant issues.

For a lot of people, natural gas presents hope. They see it as a key to America's energy independence and as a cleaner fuel to tide us over until even cleaner alternative energy sources can be widely deployed. Maybe in time their view will turn out to be right.

But any fair current analysis must return, time and again, to fracking's still uncertain cost, not just in dollars and cents, but in terms of human health, safe drinking water, and a clean environment. When the stakes are that high, everything we don't know should be a red flag.

-- The Times Union of Albany


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