Don't Worry. The Water Is Probably Just Fine

The Wall Street Journal | April 29, 2011
By Andrew Grossman

"Most likely safe" is hardly a reassuring phrase—especially when it's applied to drinking water.

Official-looking stickers offering that cold comfort have been appearing above public faucets around New York in an apparent effort to stoke opposition to a controversial form of natural-gas drilling.

The stickers bear a city Department of Environmental Protection logo, the words "Safe to drink" in capital letters and a drawing of someone holding a match to a dripping spigot. They urge drinkers to "expose water to flame" if they're concerned about contamination from hydraulic fracturing.

Hydraulic fracturing involves shooting water and chemicals into the ground in order to extract natural gas. Parts of upstate and western New York sit atop one of the nation's largest natural-gas deposits, but the procedure is prohibited under a moratorium issued by former Gov. David Paterson. The ban expires this summer, and the state is considering allowing the procedure. Many environmental groups and the city oppose the move out of concern that it could contaminate the city's drinking water, which comes from upstate.

Drilling advocates dismiss those concerns, especially the idea that hydraulic fracturing might make drinking water flammable. 

Lighting water on fire "is a parlor trick that really has nothing to do with hydraulic fracturing," said Jim Smith, a spokesman for the Independent Oil and Gas Association of New York State. Instead, he said, it's caused by naturally occurring methane that gets into some water supplies regardless of whether there's nearby drilling.

The stickers have been spotted in Tompkins Square Park and Penn Station, among other places, but aren't official, a DEP spokesman said. 

"There's some type of hoax. I'm not sure what it is," said spokesman Farrell Sklerov. "There's no current risk to the water supply. There are no hydrofracking drills in the city's watershed."

Attempts to track down the people responsible for the stickers were unsuccessful Thursday. Some prominent antidrilling groups contacted said they had no knowledge of their origin. 

A call to the phone number on the sticker went to a voicemail box answered by a British-accented computer-generated voice that said, "You have reached the offices of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection." A message left there wasn't returned. The stickers direct readers to a website made to look official—many of the links go to real city pages—where visitors can reproduce the stickers.

"I wish I could claim that cleverness," said Kate Sinding, a senior attorney at the Natural Resources Defense Council, which opposes hydraulic fracturing but claims no responsibility for the hoax. "I think the reason it's so powerful is even though DEP didn't do it themselves, it echoes the concerns that DEP and the city more broadly have."