Fracking ban sparks debate, consensus eludes selectmen

Fracking — the hydraulic fracturing process used to help get hard-to-reach oil and gas out of the ground — and proposals aimed against fracking, and reuse of its wastes and byproducts, seem to have Ridgefield’s Board of Selectmen stymied.

At their first meeting in September, the selectmen again delayed action on a proposed ban on use, storage, disposal or transportation through town of by-products from fracking.

The board started discussing fracking when Kristin Quell-Garguilo of the Ridgefield Action Coalition for the Environment (RACE) came to a meeting and proposed an anti-fracking ordinance — back in late January.

On and off since then, there have been debates, a guest appearance by a local well-driller invited in to explain how fracking works, and most recently discussion had been broadened to include an alternative, somewhat toned down anti-fracking ordinance based on one circulated by the Connecticut Conference of Municipalities (CCM).

Still, the selectmen weren’t confident they knew enough to take action on the question.

“I just think there are so many issues here,” said Selectman Bob Hebert. “We don’t have the skill, the ability, the expertise to properly evaluate...”

While nobody appears to expect fracking for the development of oil and gas fields in Ridgefield, the fracking process produces both liquid and solid wastes that are sometimes repurposed for uses such as construction fill or road de-icers.

Recurring concerns

Both ordinance proposals the selectmen are considering attempt to restrict those uses, as well as storage or disposal of fracking wastes here, or their transportation through town.

Different members of the board have shown a wide range of views on a potential fracking ordinance, but a few central concerns have come up in the discussions the board has been having on and off since January:

  • Fracking, the reuse of waste from fracking, and the transportation, disposal and storage of fracking waste may be more appropriately regulated by the state than by the town, some argue — although the counter argument offered is that the state let its previous ban lapse, hasn’t acted to renew it, and may not do so.

  • Prohibiting the transportation of fracking waste through town — which would likely take place on state highways like Route 7 or Route 35 —  seems impractical if not impossible to enforce.

  • Provisions in the original ordinance proposal from RACE required that contractors or others working in town provide certification that products they’re using —  road paving materials, or perhaps de-icers — do not contain fracking waste. Some questioned whether users of purchased products could reasonably be expected to know the origin of all component materials.

Public opinions

With the fracking ordinance on the selectmen’s agenda earlier this month, the issue drew a range of views in correspondence and in the public comment time at the start of the meeting, well before the selectmen began discussing it.

In public comments, Louise Washer, president of the Norwalk River Watershed Association, supported the original version of the ban, as put forward by Kristin Quell-Garguilo of RACE back in January, rather than the toned-down version borrowed from CCM in the hope that might raise fewer concerns.

“Weaker language that has come up, we feel doesn’t protect us,” Washer said.

Quell-Garguilo wrote to the selectman in advance of the meeting, bolstering her arguments against allowing re-use of fracking by-products.

“Drilling and extraction waste from oil and gas wells that is mixed into construction fill can: 1. Leach radioactive radium and many other toxins. 2. Contains a high silt content which can cause costly future slippage problems and remediation expenses. 3. Can prevent properties from being successfully built on due to instability.”

She also opposed the use of the liquid brine from fracking.

“Penn State University researchers recently published a study showing that brine spread in 14 townships was contaminating roads with radioactive radium, lead and chloride,” she wrote. “Dust on or at the sides of these roads can be inhaled or ingested, and research showed radioactive radium and chlorides were also contaminating runoff from roads.”

She said the original ordinance language proposed by RACE had been passed by 49 Connecticut towns and cities, five New York County legislatures, and 156 municipal corporations in New York.

On the other side of the argument, Ridgefield resident Scott DeYoung — who’d spoken against the RACE proposal at a meeting in May — wrote the board questioning the whole approach, beginning with the environmentalists’ intent.

“Nothing in the proposed ordinance prohibits materials with the same properties as fracking waste if they are derived from alternative sources,” he said. “In other words, this is an ordinance designed to be hostile to fracking and not the properties of the waste materials or their potential harm to the town environment…”

DeYoung argued that the issue should be left to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

“I understand this is beyond the capability of the town and regulation of hazardous materials belongs with the DEEP at the state level. Anything related to fracking waste should be regulated by the DEEP where there might be some technical capability in my view.”

He questioned the notion fracking wastes might be shipped through town.

“I cannot imagine an economic case for moving waste from a fracking site in Pennsylvania to or through Ridgefield for any reason,” DeYoung said. “I made an order of magnitude estimate and it is cost prohibitive to consider transporting waste to Connecticut from Pennsylvania for disposal or use.

“We are not at risk,” he said, “and this regulation is a waste of time and effort…”

Selectmen unsure

In their September discussion, the selectmen did not reach a consensus.

“What’s the cost/benefit here? What’s the risk/reward?” asked Selectman Bob Hebert. “Why would they want to move fracking waste from Pennsylvania through Ridgefield?”

“We don’t know,” First Selectman Rudy Marconi replied. “But do we want to wait until they do it, and then say ‘Oh, my God...’ ”

“This should be done at the state level,” Hebert said. “It shouldn’t be done as a town, by town, by town ordinance.”

“If it’s regulated by the state, we don’t need it,” Selectwoman Barbara Manners said.

Adopting an ordinance needs approval by town voters, not just the selectmen.

Selectman Steve Zemo thought environmental activists and sympathizers would dominate a town meeting, and would prefer the original RACE ordinance to the CCM measure.

“If this needs to be approved by a town meeting,” Zemo said, “... most folks who would be coming out would be in favor of the more restrictive one.”

Manners was uneasy with the original more restrictive proposal from RACE.

“I have a problem with the certification provisions.”

She preferred the second ordinance, from the state’s CCM.

“This ordinance is improved because it take out that certification,” she said.

“The certification puts us in a liability position … From a liability standpoint, as someone who’s practiced law, I have an issue.”

“It’s not just liability,” said Hebert. “We may find we’re without material…”

“Like salt on the road,” said Marconi. “If we’re going to be more restrictive, we have to be sure we understand the consequences.”

“I just feel we need a work session on this,” said Zemo.

“There’s a lot more to this, as we’ve learned,” said Hebert. “I’d be open to having a working session with experts.”

Marconi said he’d look into some of the issues raised by the board with DEEP, and also with the Housatonic Resources Recovery Authority, which oversees garbage disposal and recycling in the region.

“I’ll do some homework,” Marconi said.

At least one voice on the board wondered about further delaying a decision to continue a discussion that had already gone on, sporadically, for eight months

“Are we fiddling as Rome burns?” asked Selectwoman Maureen Kozlark.