On November 29, in order to meet a rule-making deadline, the New York Department of Environmental Conservation issued proposed regulations to allow fracking. It was a surprise move—and one uninformed by science. Governor Cuomo has not yet made his decision whether or not to let fracking into our state. Neither has the state yet finished its studies of the health and environmental impacts of fracking (the so-called sGEIS). And yet this cart-before-the-horse release of regulations quickly created the perception–amplified by the media–that, like it or not, fracking in New York is now an inevitability.
The public has been granted thirty days to offer comments on the rules that would dictate how fracking might be practiced in our state. And those thirty days happen to fall in the middle of the holiday season: Dec. 12 to Jan. 11.
I’m encouraging all concerned citizens to join me in submitting comments, and I particularly want to get your students involved. Would you consider assigning the writing and submission of a comment to the DEC as an extra credit project or an alternative question on a final exam? Such a comment would be an exercise in critical thinking and argumentative, evidence-based writing. It would have relevance to courses in environmental studies, English composition, communications, biology, chemistry, political science, history, economics, sociology, public health, urban studies, media studies, logic, philosophy, and law.
I have just launched a website to help. In it, I post some sample regulations—right from the DEC’s just-released draft rulebook—along with hyperlinks to scientific studies relevant to each regulation. I provide definitions of terms and otherwise lay out the resources that one needs in order to judge the logic of each regulation. Students would then apply their critical thinking skills in order to craft a comment–from a few sentences to two or three paragraphs–about the ability of that regulation to protect health or the environment.
For example, one proposed regulation governs setbacks: the minimum distance that fracking operations can be located from other places. The proposed setback for New York State is 500 feet from a “dwelling ” or “place of public assembly.” Is this distance sufficiently protective of human health? Data from Colorado seem to suggest otherwise. Furthermore, are playgrounds and hospitals offered setbacks under these definitions?
The website itself, Thirty Regs in Thirty Days, is set up in Advent calendar style: Each day I open a door on one regulation, shine a spotlight on it, and give participants the resources they need to write an informed comment. Of course, you and your students are warmly invited to join me in creating comments all throughout the holiday season! Many teachers and students have indicated to me their intent to do so. But in these last, intense, short days of December and the fall semester, I am simply writing now to encourage you to choose one of the doors of the calendar, so to speak, to ask your students to open and expound upon.
Few issues are as politically polarizing as fracking, but I believe this comment period offers us an opportunity as educators to engage our students in a real-life democratic process in which they can bring the skills and knowledge that we have taught them to the decision-making table as part of a public conservation on one of the most precipitous decisions that our state will take.
Just today the New York State Assembly announced that, on January 10, 2013, the Committees on Health, Environmental Conservation, and Administrative Regulations Review will hold a joint hearing to receive testimony on the process by which these draft regulations were released in the absence of a health impact assessment. Thus, comments submitted now can help inform an ongoing political investigation.
Sandra Steingraber Ph.D.
Distinguished Scholar in Residence
Department of Environmental Studies
Founder, New Yorkers Against Fracking,
and Concerned Health Professionals of New York