Journalism in the Public Interest

State Fracking Rules Could Allow Drilling Near New York City Water Supply Tunnels

City officials had advocated for a seven-mile buffer. Instead, the state is proposing to allow drilling within 1,000 feet of tunnels that carry water to New York City.


The Ashokan Reservoir, part of the New York City watershed. (Wikimedia Commons)

The latest draft of guidelines for hydraulic fracturing in New York could open the door to drilling within 1,000 feet of aging underground tunnels that carry water to New York City—a far cry from the seven-mile buffer once sought by city officials.

The draft environmental impact statement, released last week by state officials, is a crucial step toward allowing high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in New York. The gas drilling technique was put on hold three years ago so the state could assess any environmental effects of the practice.

If the proposal is adopted in coming months, the state would allow drilling near aqueducts but would require a site-specific environmental review for any application to drill within 1,000 feet of the water supply infrastructure.

That's not enough to protect New York City's water, said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, which is based in the city.

"There needs to be a buffer area in which there's no drilling whatsoever,” Sinding said. "Just having elevated review doesn't cut it.”

City spokesman Farrell Sklerov wouldn't say whether the city's position on the buffer zone had changed, only that officials are updating their recommendations. When the state advanced a similar proposal two years ago, city officials said it could expose tunnels to damage and allow explosive gases and pollutants to leak into the water.

State spokeswoman Emily DeSantis said a separate proposal to prohibit drilling in the New York City watershed was enough to address the city's concerns about threats to the water supply.

John Conrad, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York, an industry group, said the guidelines' provision for drilling near infrastructure was adequate to ensure safety. "It seems to be more than would be necessary to be protective,” he said.

At the center of the debate is a system of tunnels constructed in the mid-20th century that carries 1.2 billion gallons of water a day from upstate reservoirs to New York City and nearby counties. The network is already fragile—tens of millions of gallons of water leak out each day. One repair project is expected to cost more than $1 billion.

In comments on a previous draft of the state fracking guidelines, the city said brittle rock surrounds many of the tunnels. Drilling nearby could shift the earth, exerting pressure on tunnel walls that they weren't designed to withstand. Natural fractures extend as far as seven miles out and 6,000 feet down through the earth; gases and fluids already have a tendency to migrate through those fractures and toward the aqueducts, according to the city.

These geologic features, together with drilling errors like the ones that have contaminated water wells in Pennsylvania, "could result in significant surface and subsurface contamination,” the city wrote.

Though state environmental experts have concluded that gas, natural fluids and fracking fluids—a mixture of water, sand and chemicals used to crack open the earth—would not migrate beyond the targeted rock, city environmental officials have argued there isn't enough evidence to prove this couldn't happen. This debate is at the center of the disagreement.

The city and state use a similar 1,000-foot zone to govern the drilling of geothermal wells near the infrastructure. The state has said this policy should apply to gas wells, too, because fracking occurs thousands of feet below the tunnels, which would isolate any effects. The city, however, has expressed concern that the pressure exerted by fracking could alter pre-existing faults and damage the tunnels.

Moreover, city officials have said there are areas where the Marcellus Shale, the zone of rock the drillers are targeting, is in direct contact with the tunnels. The shale is deeper to the west and south but nears the surface in parts of New York.

In addition to banning drilling in the New York City and Syracuse watersheds—both of which provide high-quality, unfiltered water—the state has proposed setbacks of varying distances from these watersheds and other sensitive areas where drilling would be prohibited.

Drillers who want to sink a well within 1,000 feet of the aqueducts would need to conduct a study to identify whether drilling poses significant adverse environmental effects. If any potential effects are identified, the driller would need to initiate a full environmental impact study before drilling could be approved. The state has said it would not approve drilling unless the city is satisfied, but the state would hold ultimate authority over whether drilling would proceed.

Sinding worries that the layers of protection guaranteed on paper won't get much use in practice. A similar process has existed for conventional drilling in sensitive areas for more than two decades, yet the state has never required the full review, she pointed out.

The 60-day public comment period on the state's proposals is scheduled to start in August, after which officials will issue final guidelines, a process unlikely to be completed this year. Drilling cannot begin until the process is complete.

So the question is this: If drillers are allowed to drill within 1,000 feet of the tunnels and something catastrophic happens causing damage to the tunnel who would be responsible for paying for repairs? Who would be responsible for supplying NYC with clean water while the repairs were being made? So far, the drillers have managed to say nothing bad that has occurred can be directly linked to them. Would this be another instance where they would invoke the same phrase? After all, the tunnels are old. They could claim the problems were naturally occurring as they have done in every other instance. And, with the cities and states in dire economic straits, not to mention most of the world’s citizens, where will the money be found to make the necessary repairs?

Beverly, you’ve just stated the industry’s whole argument verbatim.  The tunnels are old, and if they collapse, coincidentally within days of the commencement of nearby fracking, the City of NYC would have to prove that the tunnels would not have collapsed anyway, completely on their own.  Impossible to prove so obviously the taxpayers will pay the cost.  Isn’t capitalism wonderful?

Is this the next big business the tax payers will have to bail out?  Imagine NYC water supply getting contaminated!!  I say, go ahead, capitalize!!  Sell your land (soul) to the devil!  Who needs fresh water when you have money? 

Who insures these unregulated gas drilling companies?  Lloyds of London, AIG?  Do they actually have the means to pay out all those claims when your houses are worthless because of drilling?  Just wondering, but based on human nature, I think we may find out soon enough.

Barry Schmittou

July 15, 2011, 8:56 a.m.

This proves the evil power of lobbyists !!

“High-volume hydraulic fracturing” is questionable anywhere, but it’s pure criminal corruption to do it “within 1,000 feet of aging underground tunnels that carry water to New York City.”

I need help stopping more criminal corruption !!

Please go to to see how multiple insurance companies ignore life threatening medical conditions and commit crimes in 5 different types of insurance. The Obama and Bush administrations did nothing to stop them when they saw the evidence.

You’ll see the following quote from ProPublica :

“CNA’s failure to pay out benefits underscores the continuing problems with the Defense Base Act, essentially the workers compensation system for overseas federal contractors.”

“Workers fought long battles for medical care, including such things as prosthetic devices and treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. The Labor Department seldom took action to enforce the law. One official called the system a “fiasco.”

This evidence has been submitted to President Obama through his directors of the DOL and DOJ who read my communications sent to them. 

I’ve had cancer in one eye and surgery on the other, so please forgive my inability to edit as succinctly as most would. If anyone gets on a Federal or local Grand Jury please move for indictments on these dangerous oraganized crimes and treasons !!

NYC’s infrastructure is old. There is an earthquake fault that runs up Broadway to a nuclear power plant. Why would anyone even think of drilling near the City’s water supply. I left NY after having visions of its destruction - Rockefeller Center tunnels filled with water, St Patrick’s Cathedral in ruins. My visions did not contain any whens or hows, but scared me enough. The City sits on numerous tunnels shaken daily with subways and street traffic. It is primed to crumble. Simple physics, if you add or subtract something below ground the surrounding area will move to compensate. I have not heard anything good about fracking. Why would anyone want to risk so much for a dangerous procedure. Money and greed, which is the motivation behind fracking, will destroy our society.

Though state environmental experts have concluded that gas, natural fluids and fracking fluids—a mixture of water, sand and chemicals used to crack open the earth—would not migrate beyond the targeted rock, city environmental officials have argued there isn’t enough evidence to prove this couldn’t happen. This debate is at the center of the disagreement.

Ahhh .... emotion beats science once again. Someone call Chris Mooney.

A relevant argument could be made, and should be made, that since other kinds of wells are allowed to be drilled within 1000’ feet of the aqueducts and there has not been an incident why would there be an increased risk from gas drilling?

@ Sarina

The Ramapo fault hasnt seen any significant activity in 90 million years.

Barry Schmittou

July 15, 2011, 1:34 p.m.

Fracking has many potential dangers, and I will never trust the oil and gas industry. While I live in Tennessee I would hate to see New York put risk because of corporate greed, and that’s what seems to control our corporations and world leaders.

If you’d like to see how big money endangers lives on the Federal level please visit a website I just set up :

There you’ll see how a MetLife VP who personally gave Obama a $30,000 contribution signed MetLife’s third Non Prosecution agreement that they received regarding the sales of insurance policies !!

But they’re still endangering many lives by ignoring life threatening medical conditions when very sick patients file a claim as seen on the websites that are linked to the one seen above !!

Simon Loughlin

July 15, 2011, 1:41 p.m.

The Achilles heel of NYC is it’s water supply.  There is no way to replace and distribute what comes in from the aqueduct system.  To take any chances with the system is insanity.

Tell the would-be drillers and frackers that they can come within 1,000 feet of the existing system if, and only if, they first put in place a complete alternative system.  They would greet that idea with laffs and rude noises.

Disaster for the communist liberals in NYC? Sounds good to me! Drill baby, drill!

To the inhabitants of New York State, to the people of New York City…stand up! What’s a thousand feet to 5 million galons of fracking fluid or a record amount (26 million gallons) from a “Wild Cat Well” with a very deep bottom ...the vibration will be enormous and the power, the brute force of that much gunk travelling below and into the aquifer and the cracks in the tunnels…

Note: In the water wars of the Old West (Cattlemen vs Ranchers) the last guy they wanted to see or hear from was the Governor because he, as usual, was worse than no help at all.  Don’t kid yourself you are on your own!

Within 1000 feet of NYC’s water supply?

Dang…if it weren’t for the fact that Big Oil/Gas never, ever…never, ever, ever, never...have “accidents” caused by malfeasance, neglected maintenance, or “Profit first!  Somebody else can worry about tomorrow!!” thinking, I’d be tempted to try to gain a monopoly on bottled water deliveries to NYC.

Think how much money I’d make in the days, weeks, and months that follow the inevitable “It isn’t our fault the NYC water supply is no longer potable!!  Anyway, you can’t hold us accountable:  We acquired the well(s) and/or pipeline(s) as a result of a string of mergers and acquisitions; the original corporation is long out of business even if one or more of its executive team is on our board of directors…”.

lolll…that’s the way it works:  Corporations are people with rights but no responsibilities.

A human being can “last” 14 days without water…New York City uses 1.2 billion gallons a day, there is no substitute, no back up water…T-Boone and the Texans used 13.5 billion gallons in 2010 (And this will double in the very near future) when other brackish non-potable water was available that they could have used, can you believe this…not only do they not care about your clean water, they could wipe out the City!

This is beyond insane it’s criminal. There is no more precious resource than our water. I would rather pay higher energy bills than allow this to happen. If for no other resaon than our childrens sake this should not be outlawed.


Cheney & Bush made sure these drilling companies are EXEMPT from the Clean Water Act….

So the bums in New York have failed to maintain vital infrastructure and the rest of the State has to jump through hoops to accommodate them?
Nah, never happen.

@Bill Jones:  Is OK with the rest of America if ya’ll close NYC down…

Least, get rid of Wall Street and the big banks there.

Pop Reduction

July 16, 2011, 9:13 p.m.

This is BP on steroids waiting to happen.

Gas leaks + Oil spills = Gulf of Mexico on the Hudson.


Governor Bozo is out to protect where his personal drinking water comes from while he allows drilling on top of where many in upstate get there drinking water.

No sympathy here!

I should also add that the tunnels mentioned an a number of cases are leaking OUT -they are under positive pressure that would prevent fracking material from entering the tunnels.

Meanwhile, that water leaving the tunnels is causing problems for upstate communities along the paths of those tunnels.

Again, no sympathy for NYC!

carlos briones

July 17, 2011, 9:16 a.m.

This article does a terrific job of hyping a non-issue.

The area Kusnetz refers to is outside the scope of the SGEIG/GEIS.  This means that an entire environmental impact study would need to be completed by the natural gas operating company for each well.  That study would then be subject to a comment period, and would most certainly be litigated.

Given that the cost of the study & litigation would far exceed the economic value of the well, it is highly unlikely that anyone would bother even applying for a permit to drill in this area.  And if someone did, competent folks like Kate Sinding @ NRDC would make sure that no permit would be issued.

Just because an activity is not specifically permanently banned doesn’t mean there is a chance it will ever happen. 

ProPublica is doing a good job keeping people terrified.

I want to see the the tests that show Fracking chemicals showing up in the Chesapeake Bay. If the testing has been done, I guarantee those chemicals will show up in those tests. If the testing hasn’t been done, why not? In Texas’ low moisture soils, movement isn’t a large problem. It is a huge problem for the entire East part of the nation. We can’t base our decisions on dry soil information.

If you really believe that it is not a problem ask the communities in Appalachia where thousands of water wells have been destroyed. Welcome to our world, you should be afraid very afraid. You will never get them to admit to any damage. These companies will corrupt your democracy with millions of dollars and you will loose in the long run, once the water is gone or polluted, it is gone.Seven miles might be enough, a thousand feet are you kidding me.

William O. DeRegibus

July 19, 2011, 12:55 a.m.

New York State had a marvelous and diverse group of candidates for the office of governor, currently occupied by Mr. Cuomo. When asked during the televised debate about Hydraulic Fracturing in the State of New York, candidate Cuomo stated he would allow “fracking” but “only if it was safe”. Now we must ask Mr. Cuomo, if fracking is indeed safe, why exempt the NY City water system? Why allow this horror to ruin so many other cities and municipal water systems? A casual look at the internet shows that law firms are now soliciting victims of fracking in many states due to exposure to known carcinogens (like benzine) that are used in the process, loss of safe drinking water, real estate value collapse, indeed, the destruction of whole communities. This is something no state needs. Can’t New York find a better way to raise funds instead of this criminal legacy of Mr. Cheney? Why not issue Consoles (bonds) ,raise tax rates on gambling income, try anything but this monstrous and permanently ruinous process? To throw away potable water in this day when Chinese ships are regularly filling huge bladders with Great Lakes water is insane. Politicians must be held accountable, in this case stating “We didn’t know” is unacceptable. Vigorous legal action is necessary and must be pursued immediately before the disaster spreads.

Drilling nearby could shift the earth, exerting pressure on tunnel walls that they weren’t designed to withstand.

Yeah and a butterfly farting in Honduras caused tornadoes in Missouri.  Only shows that ProPubica can and will find anybody to say something utterly stupid.

To bubba: Like T-Boone buy Fresh Water…

US Strategic Water Supply Plan “B” (Top Secret) British Columbia Coastal Mountain Range glacier run off of Billions of gallons of fresh water into the Pacific Ocean is to be trapped and poured into Super Water Tankers for transport to the US of A…THE CATCH…Dawson Creek and a number of the larger feeder watersheds (they drain North and West) have already been Hydraulically Fractured (Fresh Waterwise) to a standstill, they take decades/centuries to replenish.

Note: The Chinese are presently emptying our Great Lakes…

Barry Schmittou

July 21, 2011, 7:17 a.m.

Hi Canucnik,

Have you got any links to the water buying. I would love for ProPublica to report on that too. It may be a huge threat to Americans !!

@bubba:  Maybe you should look at page 2 of the embedded comments from NYC ( ).

Wasn’t ProPublica “found” somebody; that analysis on the geological and man-made structures involved originated from the government of the community which will be placed at risk.

Your conclusion that playing with the rock strata within 1000 feet of NYC’s water supply aqueducts poses no risks causes me to suspect that you were previously employed by Massey Energy to vouch for the safety of their mines.

I.e., it isn’t the people who are placed at risk whom you are concerned about; rather, your intent is to protect those who will profit from placing those people at risk.

Barry…in the 1980’s it was identified, even televised, David Suzuki’s program I think, that this great abundant source, the mountains of British Columbia could provide, of glacial fresh, pure water was not being utilized. There was open interest from the State of California but nothing ever came of it (even talk of the easy fill super tankers needed). I have nothing so far but I still have contact with a couple of the elder biologists who worked B.C. at that time. We shall keep digging!

Note: I have a vague recollection (again years ago) of a General Officer in the Quartermaster Corps making a reference to “this” as a water source for the Army in the face of an emergency…

Note 2: the Chinese just bought out the Israeli’s play in our tar sands so will be monituring it’s water use. That particular new play, new process uses less water but is not a money maker thus far? The Chinese have also been monituring the glacial run off possibility and have expressed an interest in our water!

Note 3: Whether it’s hydraulic fracturing or the tar sands, the fresh water use/distruction is enormous, way beyond their estimates!

Folks should remember that while NYC is dependent on Catskilll water, Catskill residents are dependent on tax revenue generated in NYC. The us against them stance is not helpful, we depend on each other.

We all know that hydrofracture is unsafe. The real question is what are we willing to put up with, how much polution, in order to cash in.

This article is part of an ongoing investigation:

Fracking: Gas Drilling’s Environmental Threat

The promise of abundant natural gas is colliding with fears about water contamination.

The Story So Far

The country’s push to find clean domestic energy has zeroed in on natural gas, but cases of water contamination have raised serious questions about the primary drilling method being used. Vast deposits of natural gas, large enough to supply the country for decades, have brought a drilling boom stretching across 31 states. The drilling technique being used, called hydraulic fracturing, shoots water, sand and toxic chemicals into the ground to break up rock and release the gas.

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