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Auburn, NY, Votes to Ban Accepting Wastewater

The City Council of Auburn, NY, voted Thursday to stop accepting wastewater generated from hydraulic fracturing (fracking) at natural gas wells, ending more than a decade of the practice and eliminating a major source of revenue for the city.

City Clerk Debra McCormick told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday that Mayor Michael Quill and Councilors Gilda Brower and Thomas McNabb voted in favor of the ban, which passed by a 3-1 vote with one councilor absent. Councilor Michael Smith was the lone dissenter.

"The members of council, or anyone else, did not produce one shred of scientific evidence proving that what we have been accepting for the last 10 to 15 years at the wastewater treatment plant has brought any harm to our plant or the surrounding waterways," Smith told NGI's Shale Daily on Monday.

The city's wastewater treatment plant discharges into the Owasco River. Jeff Sikora, the facility's chief operator, told NGI's Shale Daily that the city -- which is located in Cayuga County -- had been accepting wastewater from natural gas wells for more than 10 years, and that had generated an average of $600,000 a year in revenue for the last three years.

"We have a $600,000 hole in our budget now," Smith said. When asked what the city plans to do to make up for the shortfall, Smith answered, "Good question."

Cherie Messore, spokesperson for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York (IOGA), told NGI's Shale Daily that Auburn's decision was an unfortunate one.

"The city has been accepting wastewater for several years," Messore said Monday. "We can't imagine why anyone during these trying, difficult economic times would turn down the opportunity to raise revenue for their city. This can only be turned back into quality of life issues for their city.

"Nothing has changed [with fracking]. It's been working successfully for the City of Auburn for all these years."

Smith concurred. "I don't think that the citizens fully understand what this is all about," he said. "I think the other side has made this into a drilling issue instead of a wastewater treatment issue. I think once the public understands that what we've been accepting is 99.5% water and sand, I don't think the public would have a problem."

He acknowledged that the "other side" included the environmental group Cayuga Anti-Fracking Alliance (CAFA). One of its members, Beth Beer Cuddy, told The Post-Standard Thursday that the vote "sends a strong message that Auburn is not going to be a dumping ground for the natural gas industry." Contact information for CAFA could not be found.

"Just from listening to the people who came and commented at Thursday's council meeting, these people were from outside the city," Smith said. "It was kind of a mix. There were, of course, some local people as well, but they don't fully understand what we do at the treatment plant."

Sikora said the facility last took wastewater from natural gas drilling on June 21, when it accepted 3,780 gallons from Empire Energy. Sikora said he did not know if the wastewater was from operations in New York or another state.

The New York Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) released its recommendations on fracking on June 30 and published the first draft Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement (SGEIS) on the practice on Friday (see Shale Daily, July 11; July 5). The recommendations included a requirement that operators have their flowback disposal plans approved by the DEC.

Unlike Ohio and Pennsylvania (see Shale Daily, May 20; April 20), municipal water treatment facilities would be permitted to accept flowback water after "full analysis and approvals under existing state and federal water laws and regulations."

Messore said that to IOGA's knowledge, Auburn was the first municipality in New York to ban accepting wastewater from natural gas wells.

"They made this decision without having the full review of the SGEIS," Messore said. "We hope moving forward that cities and towns take the time to educate themselves and reach out to IOGA and other places to learn what they can do and what is safe."

Asked if he hopes to someday have the ban lifted, Smith said, "I'm hoping so. I'm hoping that we can get some leadership who will base their decisions on facts, not on what they feel to be politically favorable."

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