Years ago, I used to lie in my bed at Camp Tel Yehudah and listen to the water flowing in the Delaware River just behind my cabin. Today, I am reminded of my camping days as I worry about the natural gas rush that threatens to pollute the water supplies of 15 million people who get their drinking water from the Delaware River watershed.
The Poconos and the Catskills, the heartland of Jewish summer camps, are right in the middle of the area where the natural gas rush is underway. There are dozens of Jewish camps in the area, drawing campers from throughout the Northeast and beyond. The Delaware River Basin Commission, which has authority to regulate activities that may affect water quality in the Delaware River, recently held hearings in Honesdale, Pa., about gas drilling. Honesdale is the home of Camp Moshava, Camp Seneca Lake and Camp Towanda. Camp Tel Yehudah is just across the Delaware in Barryville, N.Y.
Jewish summer camps in the region are being approached to lease their land for gas drilling. The deals would likely include payments for signing a lease and a percentage of future royalties if the wells yield gas.
Boards of nonprofit camps and owners of private camps are faced with weighing short-term benefits against long-term risks. Many summer camps have 200 acres of land. In the short term, at $4,000 an acre (the signing fee offered to some landholders in Pennsylvania), a lease could bring in close to a million dollars to fund critical needs such as facility improvements and camp scholarships. But in the long term, the risks are polluted water, land and air.
The gas rush in the Poconos and Catskills is happening now because we have used up our easily accessible fossil fuels, and now we’re turning to deposits that are harder to exploit. One of the biggest deposits of natural gas yet to be tapped is found in a huge area called the Marcellus Shale that includes a large swath of Pennsylvania and western and central New York. Until recently natural gas companies didn’t have the technology to extract this gas because it is embedded in small pockets in layers of rock. But now they do, and the rush is on.
Although natural gas does burn more cleanly than coal and oil, it contributes greenhouse gases to the atmosphere just like other fossil fuels. And getting it out of the ground is dirty and destructive.
To extract the natural gas in the Marcellus Shale, drillers have to use a dangerous process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. It involves injecting millions of gallons of water, mixed with toxic chemicals, into the ground and detonating the rock to cause it to shatter. Only about half of the water can be recaptured and potentially treated. The rest flows away to contaminate streams and wells. But that’s not all. Multiple drill pads scar the land, and escaping gas pollutes the air. And scientists have recently identified a further risk that fracking may bring radioactive elements from deep in the earth to the surface.
The gas industry says that fracking is safe, but if that is true, why are the companies that use this technique trying to avoid regulation? In 2005, lobbyists for the natural gas industry persuaded Congress to exempt fracking from regulation under the Safe Drinking Water Act and the Clean Water Act. Other key environmental laws also contain exemptions for gas drilling.
Opposition to gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale is growing. New York’s City Council and Mayor Michael Bloomberg have taken stands against allowing fracking in the Marcellus Shale, in order to protect the city’s watershed. Thanks to public pressure, there is currently a de facto moratorium on new drilling in New York State until new environmental reviews are completed, possibly as early as this June.
The values I learned at summer camp have stayed with me. At camp I breathed in the fresh air along with Jewish lessons about personal responsibility, leadership, community and our connection with the land. Today, we have a choice: We can take the money and hope for the best. Or we can turn down the money and do our best to protect the land, water and people from this dangerous form of gas extraction. We have the opportunity to teach our children a lasting lesson about Jewish values. What do we want that lesson to be?
Mirele B. Goldsmith is an environmental psychologist and founder of Green Strides Consulting. She is on the board of Hazon and is a former vice-chairperson of the Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life.