Bichteman oversees hydrofracking report

Printed but not accepted: Councilman Anthony Sherman pages through a report compiled by Westerlo's committee to study hydraulic fracturing when it was first given to board members in May. The board voted in a later meeting to reject the report, which is now supposed to be revised.

WESTERLO — Six months ago, town resident Dianne Sefcik spoke of an improperly closed-off committee preparing a report on hydrofracking for the town. She has now been invited to revise the document, and The Enterprise’s appeal to its denied request for the report has been granted.

Town board member William Bichteman was unanimously designated the town’s Freedom Of Information Law appeals officer at the Aug. 6 board meeting. Later, board member Alfred Field said Bichteman was heading a committee to revise the report.

Bichteman was appointed to the town board in February, when Sefcik first spoke publicly, saying the committee had violated the Open Meetings Law and was biased.

Sefcik has said Westerlo should not allow hydraulic fracturing — the resource-intensive process of fracturing underground shale for natural gas — citing its risk to the environment. Westerlo sits on the northeastern part of the Marcellus shale, which has been mined for natural gas in other states.

 Field, a town board member, refused to continue his work with the committee as it revises the report, and voted against Bichteman’s motion in July to have the town board reject the document and have it revised.

At the August meeting, Bichteman said he would need time to ask other people who worked on the report of their interest to “redo or modify the existing report.”

“I think the things I pointed out were not gray areas,” Bichteman told The Enterprise after the August meeting. He has said the report is biased, difficult to read, and, in one instance, “not factual.”

In his response letter to the appeal from The Enterprise, Bichteman deemed the report accessible under the Freedom Of Information Law. He wrote that the request wasn’t denied, “but rather you were advised that since the town was in the process of reviewing the report, it would not be offered to the public until a determination was made by the Town Board as to whether to accept or reject the report.”

Sefcik has given the board an analysis of the report, a list of zoning and planning self-assessment questions, and a collection of sources that could be used in the revision process that she estimated could take months.

“I think it has to be substantially rewritten,” Sefcik told The Enterprise.

The 137-page report, dated for April 2013, has sections focused on the economic impacts and process of hydraulic fracturing. Several sections address the potential health and safety impacts, focusing on the chemicals used, risks to water supplies, and radioactivity. One section reviews state and federal regulations governing hydrofracking.

In her letter, Sefcik notes that the report is inconsistently formatted and rarely describes information and potential impacts specifically for Westerlo.

Nearly a third of the 117 pages that make up the body of the report is excerpted and summarized from the Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement on the Oil, Gas and Solution Mining Regulatory Program issued by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation.

The board voted on July 25 to extend a year-long moratorium on hydraulic fracturing in the town. The local law notes that state regulations on the process are not final, and describes the town committee’s role as assembling “factual and scientific information” on hydrofracking. It says the town board needs more time to determine the impact of potential state regulation and, if necessary, to amend the town’s zoning law to address hydraulic fracturing.

In May, a decision from an Appellate Division court, the middle level in the state’s three-tiered system, said town bans on hydrofracking are not pre-empted by state law. Dryden and Middlefield, the towns involved in the cases, have gas drilling and exploration listed as prohibited uses in their zoning laws.

“My view is this: that hydraulic shale gas extraction, or hydrofracking, cannot be proven safe in New York State, that local governments are the last hope of protection that we have for the vital resources we all share, and that the town has a very limited amount of time left to enact protective legislation,” Sefcik said during the February meeting.

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