Tuesday, August 9, 2011

NYS DEC Investigation Rejects
Big Flats Water Claims vs. Anschutz

Memo From Linda Collart of NYS DEC Minerals Division Region 8 January 31, 2011

The Fall 2010 well water troubles experienced by Big Flats, NY, homeowners were more of a natural, pre-existing, and seasonal phenomenon — rather than having anything to do with gas drilling, experts from the NYS DEC ultimately concluded in January 2011.

That's the final official word, as spelled out in a five-page memo, which is now seeing the light of day due to a lawsuit organized by plaintiffs' attorneys out of New York City.  The case pits nine Big Flats-area homeowners against the privately held Anschutz Energy Corporation of Denver, CO, and two sub-contractors.  The DEC had previously given a skeptical, but more reserved, assessment of the situation in a November 2010 "fact sheet" — which I just re-loaded here.  

Known formally as Baker et al vs. Anschutz et al, the case is now starting to collect some momentum in U.S. District Court, Western District of New York, Rochester.  It was originally filed in the State Supreme Court sitting in Chemung County, but lawyers for Anschutz must have soon thereafter got it bumped up into federal court on some kind of legal technicality.

Partly due to some outright factual errors and to some subtle textual misdirection in the original press release from law firm
Napoli Bern Ripka, February 2011, the conflict has been widely misreported as having to do with shale gas and fracking.  In fact, it actually involves neither.  Anschutz's drilling targeted Trenton-Black River, a 10,000-foot-deep layer of limestone which has been most profitably explored in New York using horizontal drilling, but which does not require high-volume hydraulic fracturing to coax free the natgas (if there's any found).  Full-scale operations for shale gas remain frozen under a now-three-year-old ban in NY, at least until early 2012, and the necessary high-volume technology has not yet ever been deployed by industry within the former Empire State.

The Big Flats homeowners' law firm is likely to be correct in asserting this is the "first claim" in New York State alleging domestic water contamination due to oil and gas exploration activity.  But it remains to be seen whether the case is actually intended to go someplace, or whether it's mainly intended to drum up better future business for Napoli Bern.

So far, the file looks like quite a bit of sharp skepticism from technicians, scientists, and officialdom, overlaid with much legal jockeying.  Lawyers for one defendant, Conrad Geoscience Corporation, are asking that their client be cut loose — since all it did was act as an environmental consultant in investigating the water complaints from certain homeowners.  Lawyers for the homeowners want to send the case back to Chemung County.  And lawyers for Anschutz were pressing for fast-track discovery, arguing that there's not enough there there to warrant much long, drawn-out litigation.  The judge remains due to decide a couple preliminary issues after a hearing July 7, which appears to have drawn no media notice.

Another interesting document lurking in the file was a lab report on a methane matching test [paid for by Chemung County because the DEC had no funds available!].  It was explained in a cover letter to at least one concerned homeowner by Chemung County Executive Thomas J. Santulli.  Though it's a little confusing, the lab couldn't make any isotopic fingerprint match between the methane found in two domestic water wells, and the methane coming from Anschutz's Dow #2, Santulli told them.  Here's what the whole thing looks like:

Big Flats High Precision Isotopic Analysis

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