Michael Johnson / Livingston County Courthouse
West Sparta's Dan DeZarn (left) marches dressed in the role of the big drilling corporations as protesters surround him during Monday's anti-fracking rally outside the Livingston County Court House. In County Court, a judge was hearing arguments in a lawsuit filed by Lenape Resources against the Town of Avon and state Department of Environmental Conservation.
$50 million lawsuit pitting gas company, Town of Avon enters court today
GENESEO — The lawsuit pitting a natural gas drilling company against the Town of Avon and state Department of Environmental Conservation arrives today in Livingston County Court.
Lenape Resources, which is based in Alexander, Genesee County, is seeking at least $50 million in damages from the town, claiming a local moratorium on gas drilling and storage has cost Lenape millions of dollars in lost business and unused mineral rights.
Lenape President John Holko has also claimed that the authority to regulate the gas industry resides with the state Department of Environmental Conservation and not local governments. The company is suing DEC, saying the agency is required to take action against local bans.
The court date is expected to draw a coalition of regional activists to the courthouse. A media advisory emailed Friday afternoon said the coalition would gather with community leaders at the courthouse to rally against fracking and in support of an existing moratorium on the gas drilling method. Groups including New Yorkers Against Fracking and Frack Free Genesee will lead the rally – which includes a street theater presentation involving large, inflatable costumes and a skit — and continue to call for a statewide ban on fracking.
High-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, as the technique is commonly called, has enabled companies to access large amounts of natural gas deposits from Marcellus Shale deep below parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and West Virginia. Thousands of wells have been drilled in other states within the Marcellus Shale using the fracking technique, which injects a well with millions of gallons of chemically-treated water and sand at high pressure, cracking rocks.
Hydrofracking has led to a historic boom in production, while also creating controversy over possible effects on the environment and human health.
Environmental groups fear the process could contaminate air and drinking water or cause other harm. Drillers and DEC counter that state regulations and industry safeguards will protect against contamination from drilling and fracking.
Lenape’s wells reportedly aren’t subject to the state’s moratorium because they’re vertically drilled and use low-volume fracking rather than the newer technologies necessary for shale gas development.
Lenape, the principal producer of natural gas in Livingston County, has been operating gas wells in Avon since 1991.
In 2012, the majority of Livingston County towns adopted one-year moratoriums banning vertical hydraulic fracking. Avon adopted its moratorium on June 28, 2012, in a split 3-to-2 vote. The moratorium exempted existing gas well operations but Holko ordered Lenape’s Avon wells – there were 19 operating — shut down in July.
On Nov. 13, 2012, Lenape filed its lawsuit against the Town of Avon and DEC, disputing the legality of Avon’s moratorium.
Michael Joy, an attorney representing Lenape, said that Avon was selected as the subject for this widely-watched legal action because Lenape was operating wells in Avon and because Avon received vigorous input from Lenape during the decision-making process.
Joy has said papers filed with the lawsuit demonstrate that Avon officials were bowing to political pressure from anti-drilling groups, not acting to prevent a problem caused by gas drilling.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo and DEC are expected to decide this month whether to lift the state’s 4.5-year-old moratorium on fracking. DEC has had a moratorium on gas wells using horizontal drilling and high-volume hydraulic fracking since 2008, when the agency began an environmental impact review.
State regulators are reviewing hundreds of thousands of comments from the public about fracking ahead of a Feb. 27 deadline to finalize new regulations or start over.
A new poll released Thursday by Quinnipiac University found New York voters almost evenly split of the issue of drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale. The survey found 43 percent support drilling because of the economic benefits, while 42 percent oppose drilling because of environmental concerns. Support is slightly stronger upstate, with 48 percent in favor of drilling and 40 percent opposed.