Protests and street closings preceded the first day of an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) hearing to determine the scope of a study it will be conducting on the impact of hydraulic fracturing (hydrofracing) processes on drinking water.

To accommodate more attendees EPA scheduled two sessions on Monday and two more on Wednesday at the Broome County Forum Theater in Binghamton, NY. About 400 people were registered to speak. An earlier meeting was canceled when EPA determined that the facility it planned to use wasn't big enough.

Pro- and anti-drilling rallies in Binghamton each drew about 300 supporters on Monday, forcing some street closures prior to the first session, according to the Ithaca Journal newspaper.

Because Congress exempted hydrofracing from the Safe Drinking Water Act and portions of the Clean Water Act, EPA's study is "vitally important," according to Rep. Maurice Hinchey (D-NY), a vocal critic of hydrofracing who authored the proposal seeking the study.

"We cannot and must not move forward with hydraulic fracturing absent an independent, scientific analysis, supported by empirical data, of the risks that hydraulic fracturing can pose to water supplies or air quality," Hinchey said during the first session of the hearing.

The New York hearings are the last scheduled in a series that included meetings in Dallas, Denver and Canonsburg, PA (see Daily GPI, July 15; July 12).

The study, which is to take at least two years, also is to examine other issues involved in hydrofracing (see Daily GPI, March 19). EPA is holding hearings at four locations around the country selected to represent a "full range of regional variability of hydraulic fracturing across the nation."

In a statement issued to coincide with the hearing, Tom Amontree, executive vice president of America's Natural Gas Alliance, which represents 34 independent gas exploration and production companies, defended the industry's use of hydrofracing.

"The practice has been used for 60 years on over a million wells with a proven track record. We are confident that a scientifically sound and data-driven examination will provide policymakers and the public with even greater reassurance of the safety of this long-standing practice," Amontree said.

But according to Binghamton Mayor Matthew Ryan, hydrofracing's potential to "produce even greater harm to public health for decades to come" could outweigh the economic gains that the Marcellus Shale could provide the region.

"To date I have heard only one refrain from those who want to speed up the gas play: 'we need the money,'" Ryan testified Monday. "As the mayor of an upstate city I completely understand this call, but in the absence of a strong regulatory framework I simply cannot support short-term financial gain for some while sacrificing the long-term health of our workers, families, ecology and economy."

Last week EPA sent letters to nine major national and regional hydrofracing service providers to assess the impact of the natural gas production practice on drinking water quality and public health (see Daily GPI, Sept. 10).

The letters are part of the study, which EPA began in March, of the potential risks associated with hydrofracing -- a technique used to stimulate production of natural gas. The study was authorized by Congress. It will be EPA's second study of the hydrofracing process. A 2004 study found that hydrofracing was not a threat to the environment or public health, according to producers. However, hydrofracing opponents claimed that the study was biased.

The initial results of the ongoing EPA study are expected to be released in late 2012, according to the agency. EPA also said it will ask industry to provide additional information later regarding fluid disposal practices and geological features, which will help it carry out the study.

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