PANAMA, NY - New York State's cautious approach to permitting hydraulic fracturing of the Marcellus shale for natural gas, and the disposal of potentially hazardous waste from such operations, is of little comfort to residents of this Chautauqua County community.
That's because they find themselves living next door to a soon to be operational waste disposal facility built literally a few feet over the state line in Columbus Township, Pennsylvania.
After years of an exhaustive permitting process, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has granted a permit for Bear Lake Properties LLC to begin trucking in fracking fluids to a transfer station at the corner of Weeks Road and State Line Road.
The fluids, once off loaded, will then be pumped through an underground pipeline a few feet below the surface, traveling approximately one mile to two no longer producing gas wells.
The waste will then be infused back down the wells and into the rock about a mile below the surface for its ultimate disposal.
One of the wells is about 100 yards from the NY/Pennsylvania state line.
"This is the wrong place for this kind of project," said Bill Peiffer, a Warren County PA resident who has been fighting the project for years, while noting that there are homes directly across the road from the transfer station, which have wells upon which the occupants rely on for water.
Peiffer has also been assisting New York residents in marshalling opposition .
"My worst fear is it's going to contaminate the water wells," said Mary Ellen Sykes, who with her husband Joseph lives on a 300 acre spread two miles away from the transfer station.
"What's gonna happen if they contaminate the water? ....we're done forever," Sykes said.
Bear Lake Properties Vice President John Holko insists that the Sykes and other surrounding neighbors have nothing to worry about.
"A lot of the concerns are built around a lack of knowledge and understanding," Holko told WGRZ-TV.
"Of course he's going to say it's safe," countered Sykes. "Because he's the one who wants to do this."
Holko is quick to note that the fluid is being injected to its ultimate depository nearly five thousand feet below the deepest of the surrounding water wells.
He also dismisses concerns raised by nearby residents that the fluids could migrate through fissures back up into the water table.
"What's going to happen to this stuff that they're putting in there?" wondered Peiffer. "Personally I don't know.. but I know he doesn't know either>
"Well, but I do," countered Holko. "I'm a p[petroleum engineer by education, and I've been in a business all my life where I spent huge amounts of money trying to bring the fluid out. Now I know that if I put that fluid down there, the likelihood of it coming out is very, very, very, very small."
However, there is no getting around the fact the fluid does have to pass through the water table on its way down the well.
Holko insists there are safety features to ensure it does not contaminate the surrounding ground while doing so.
"It's a pipe, within a pipe, within another pipe," he explained. "And the outside pipe actually has cement behind it...so you've got multiple layers of protection, and within those multiple layers, you've got monitoring, so if anything happens between those spots, your process stops," Holko said.
Sykes is still skeptical.
"Say they discover a problem. Then what? What do you do? You can't suck it back out of the ground!"
Sykes and others also note that even before it gets to the well, the waste has to pass through the underground pipeline, a few feet below the surface.
Here again, Holko attempted top provide reassurance.
"The pipe it travels through literally sits inside of an outside pipe...so even if the inside pipe leaks, everything stays within the outside pipe, so it never gets outside of the confining edge and we monitor this as well," he said.
But what about before it enters the pipe? Where it is transferred from trucks above the surface?
Asked by Two On Your Side what safeguards are in effect to prevent a problem there, Holko replied, "we have enough capacity in our dike, as well as in our cement pad, to hold an entire truck load of fluid, so even if the truck dumped, it would basically stay in a plastic lined pit."
The idea of the materials being exposed for any time under such a scenario is also upsetting to those with concerns about the project.
Holko described the waste as "mostly salt", with some heavy metals naturally occurring in deep rocks and water.
"This isn't water, this is frack fluid!" exclaimed Peiffer. Added Sykes, "when you start listing what kind of issues are in it, it's toxic."
While some chemicals used in the fracking process would ordinarily be classified as toxic, hazardous, ...even radioactive...any fluids produced in association with "gas and oil" production, are not classified as such, and were exempted from hazardous waste regulation by Congress under the Resource Recovery and Conservation Act.
"From our perspective one of the better ways to dispose of it is put it back where it came from," said Holko.
But Sykes and others believe "putting it back where it came from" is a misnomer, because the waste products are being generated in places other than their communities..possibly from other states.
"They're bringing in waste from somewhere else that has nothing to do with this community," Sykes said.
While the fluids to be brought in are limited to being originated by "oil and gas operations", Holko acknowledges "It can come from wherever it comes from".
But he's quick to note that disposal operations are largely economically driven.
"When you're disposing of waste, you're going to look for the closest place possible to reduce your costs," he said.
Thus, while the waste could be traveling long distances initially, Holko believes that as fracking continues to expand in Pennsylvania....and possibly begins some day in New York, that most of the waste will, eventually, be locally generated.
According to the permit issued by the EPA, Bear Lake is permitted to bring in up to 2.5 million gallons of waste for disposal per month, until the permit expires in the summer of 2016.
"I felt blindsided by this," said New York State Senator Catherine Young (R-Olean) who represents this part of Chautauqua County.
"But it's a different state with a different set of rules, and we don't have jurisdiction or authority...and because it's just a few feet over the state line, that's what makes it so tricky and so frustrating."
Young says New York officials are almost powerless to interfere....almost.
For while the operation is being conducted in Pennsylvania, Holko confirms the planned route of the trucks to the site utilizes roads through New York State.
"We're working on a strategy of things we can do things that are under our authority in New York State, such as the weight limit on the roads," said Young, who says it's her understanding that the roads may be posted with weight limits lower than the weight of the trucks Bear Lake plans to take waste from.
"There would be a lot of loggers and farmers with milk trucks who might be opposed to that," replied Holko, before stating, "if they're lowering the weights to prevent something that creates legal issues."
It could also create a scenario by which waste hauler s would just use smaller trucks...creating even more traffic on the country roads surrounding the site.
"Also, in Pennsylvania if we want, we can bond the entire state route to the site, and we can drive there with anything we want," Holko said.
Even if it turns out that the fears of nearby residents are more perceived, than real, that's also of little comfort to them, as they figure the value of their property will go down substantially, with potential buyers possibly scared off by what lies beneath the surface, even a mile down
Peiffer concedes there is probably nothing left to stop Bear Lake.
"For the local residents around here, this is their Alamo, and I think they understand that. It's their last chance to make a statement and say, look what's going on here. How did this get permitted?"
Click on the video player to watch our story from 2 On Your Side Reporter Dave McKinley and Photojournalist Bob Mancuso. Click here to read Dave McKinley's blog. Follow Dave on Twitter: @DaveMcKinley2