Westerlo meeting on hydrofracking report rescheduled

WESTERLO — A handful of citizens who regularly attend town meetings are growing frustrated that a meeting for public comment on a high-volume hydraulic fracturing report has twice been postponed.

Energy problems were cited each time.

In February, the town hall’s heating system was broken. In March, one councilman said he had to stay home to make sure his house was heated. Proponents of the gas-extraction process, known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, say it could be an energy boon.

The Westerlo Town Board voted at its April meeting to again hear public comment, on May 6 at 7 p.m. in town hall, before voting on whether or not to adopt a draft report on high-volume hydraulic fracturing first submitted by a research committee one year before.

The town has a moratorium on gas drilling currently in effect, set to expire this summer.

A special town board meeting on March 25 was held, but the only board member to attend was Supervisor Richard Rapp. Residents who attended said none of the committee members were there.

“I’m sorry I was not here. I had to heat my house,” Councilman Anthony Sherman said of the most recent date during the April 1 meeting. “Making sure my children have heat comes before a special public hearing.” He said someone else was repairing his furnace for days before the meeting, taking longer than expected.

Councilman Alfred Field said he e-mailed Rapp a week before to say he would be celebrating his grandson’s 14th birthday, and Councilman Theodore Lounsbury said he was called to stay late at work on the day of the meeting.

When Councilman William Bichteman learned in the afternoon before the meeting that there wouldn’t be a quorum of the town board, he said, he called Rapp and was told he needn’t come.

The board members responded with their reasons after resident Dianne Sefcik criticized them for not appearing. Sefcik’s views are expressed in a letter to the editor on page 3.

“Where’s the commitment?” she asked during the April meeting. “It hasn’t existed for a very long time.”

Sefcik, whose husband, John Sefcik, is a member of the zoning board of appeals, has questioned the board regularly for more than a year on its process of addressing hydrofracking. She thanked Sherman for apologizing and suggested the other councilmen should as well. Bichteman denied her claim that the board was waging a “war of attrition,” saying he intended to be at the meeting.

“We’ve been trying to do what we feel is best for the health and safety and welfare for this entire community, and we’ve shown up, and it’s almost like smack in your face kind of thing,” said resident Anita Marrone, a resident vocal on the issue at Westerlo Town Board meetings. “…There’s nobody but us. We feel like we’re jerks.”

Municipalities throughout the state have passed laws and moratoria related to hydrofracking, while a question remains about the legal standing of such measures against state regulations. Their legality will be tested in a case scheduled to be heard in the state’s highest court, the Court of Appeals, on June 3, and decided about a month later.

Governor Andrew Cuomo has said the decision on whether to permit hydrofracking for natural gas in New York will await a review of health studies underway by the state’s Department of Health. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation issued its most recent draft impact statement on the process in 2011.

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