Hydrofracking, Regulation, and Archaeology

Posted by Edward V. Curtin on May 17, 2012 in Archaeology |

Wednesday morning I turned on Albany, New York’s WNYT news and saw the actor Mark Ruffalo speaking in an interview about Tuesday’s protest against New York State’s permitting of hydrofracking in upstate New York.  Ruffalo, who lives in upstate New York, offered the opinion that hydrofracking will either be “banned” or “heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily regulated” in the Empire State.  He may or may not be right.

The issue of whether hydrofracking will be banned or permitted under state regulations is currently being considered by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC).  Until DEC speaks definitively on this issue, it is not clear whether fracking will be banned, heavily, heavily, heavily, heavily regulated, regulated to a lesser extent, or permitted with little significant regulation.  Environmental, health, and economic issues concern a good many people as they watch to see how the DEC will act.

Impacts to historic and archaeological sites (often referred to as cultural resources) are among the many kinds of environmental impact that DEC has the responsibility to regulate should it permit hydrofracking of the Marcellus Shale or other deposits in New York.  As I reported in Fieldnotes last fall, the November 2011 issue of Scientific American (1) describes what hydrofracking is, (2) briefly outlines some of the controversy and concerns, and (3) provides a graphic illustration that allows one to visualize the nature of ground disturbance at a generic well-site developed for hydrofracking.

Archaeologists–  who, like geologists and engineers, are well-trained, well-educated professionals–  expect agencies such as DEC to adequately take into account the effect that issuing permits has on historic and archaeological sites.  Archaeology magazine reported on concerns that state regulations in Pennsylvania (where hydrofracking is already permitted) may not be strong enough to protect archaeological sites (I heard a report on the radio recently that seemed to indicate that Pennsylvania’s regulations have been under study, although archaeology was not mentioned specifically).  Meanwhile, the National Parks Conservation Association has announced a study to examine the effects of fracking on archaeological sites and other resources located in National Parks.

In New York State (again, last November) the New York Archaeological Council (NYAC) provided extensive comments to DEC Commissioner Joe Martens on the “Revised Draft-Supplemental Generic Environmental Impact Statement” currently under review with regard to permitting hydrofracking.  In short, NYAC (which had also commented in 2008) identified its interest as the appropriate protection and management of New York’s cultural resources, urging (with reference to a large number of specific sections of the Draft-Supplemental GEIS) that an adequate process be put in place to do so (NYAC in fact urged compliance with the State and National Historic Preservation Acts).  NYAC’s 2011 comments essentially sought to correct the GEIS in some places, and introduce the concept of archaeological impacts where it was needed in other places.

The concerns of archaeologists in New York State are based upon the knowledge that important historic and archaeological sites are widely distributed across New York’s landscape, including the areas proposed for hydrofracking.  These sites are not few in number, or located mainly in isolated or already protected areas. New York’s archaeological sites, in their totality, contain the information needed to tell the significant stories of New York’s past (including the area’s history before New York even existed).

These stories include the significant changes in Native American culture and land-use during the time before contact with Europeans.  Another story-line follows the stream of Native American history into its confluence with New York’s Dutch, French, and English history.  In addition, a large number and wide variety of 18th and 19th century farmstead sites can be studied by archaeologists to tell the tales of the expansion of the frontier, and how the children born after the Revolutionary War became the first generation of Americans who made themselves American in a cultural sense.  Another set of archaeological sites records the lives of people who had lived as slaves and learned to be free in rural New York.  Yet another set of archaeological sites contains information important to the history of Scotch, Irish, German, and other immigrants.  These various kinds of home and farm sites populate upstate New York’s landscape and occur among industrial sites such as Indian stone quarries and early settlers’ gristmills, sawmills, tanneries and potteries; remembered and unremembered Indian graves and burial grounds; church and school-house sites; marked and no-longer marked historic cemeteries; the occasional battlefield or old military installation; and a variety of other kinds of historic places.  It is important to recognize that these are the kinds of sites that could be affected, and that impacting them diminishes the heritage of a variety of individual communities.  Destroying them without proper recording diminishes New York State’s ability to connect in tangible ways with its history.

Currently, the wide variety of archaeological and historic sites (numbering at minimum in the many thousands) is afforded due attention and reasonable protection in the review of a variety of other kinds of DEC permits and actions.  If hydrofracking in New York is permitted, archaeological and historic sites affected or potentially affected by this industry should be identified and evaluated in a reasonable process of historic documentation, fieldwork, scientific investigation, and consultation with concerned parties (such as archaeologists, the State Historic Preservation Office, and Indian tribes or other concerned communities).  When these sites cannot be protected, mitigating measures that are reasonable in the view of archaeologists and concerned communities should be implemented and carried through to completion.  This is the kind of process that professional archaeologists consider to be essential.  Hopefully, NYAC’s comments can be used as a basis to develop a sufficient cultural resource review process for fracking (or should there be any question about this, perhaps Mr. Martens would ensure an on-going discussion with NYAC in order to better inform a wise cultural resource policy).

Archaeologists have long made the point that archaeological sites are non-renewable resources.  Archaeological sites can never be replaced, and therefore should not be consumed without a very good reason.  It is necessary to exercise wisdom about environmental permitting and regulation concordant with the knowledge that archaeological sites (or affected portions of archaeological sites) are irreplaceable.

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