State Department of Environmental Conservation Commissioner Joseph Martens today disputed an argument used by scientists who said in a letter to Gov. Andrew Cuomo last week that municipal drinking water filtration systems aren’t equipped to handle hydrofracking chemicals and contaminants. Hydrofracking, which is on hold in New York as Martens’ agency conducts an environmental review, involves pumping water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to unlock gas in shale formations.

Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University, said in a statement that filtration systems “simply do not provide protection for the sort of toxic contaminants that shale gas produces. If the risk from shale gas is too high for the watersheds of New York City, then it is too high for any of the watersheds in the state.”

Martens said that’s not the reason the state has proposed exempting the New York City and Syracuse watersheds from hydrofracking. Just the prospect of hydrofracking taking place in those watersheds would be enough to trigger a review by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of its “filtration avoidance determinations” for the two watersheds. That could lead to a requirement that those two systems filter their water. In the case of New York City, that would cost $9 billion, the commissioner said.

The state is protective of all of its drinking water supplies, Martens said, and the “rigorous regulations” being proposed for hydrofracking will protect them. ”It’s not our concern about spills, it’s our concern about construction activities, if we allowed construction activities, that would happen if we were to allow drilling in those two watersheds,” he said.

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