“Towns Driving State Policy:” New London Aims to Ban Fracking Waste

One by one, Connecticut municipalities are sending a message to state and federal legislators: no to local fracking waste disposal. Following the lead of municipalities across four counties beginning with Washington and most recently including Middletown, New London aims to become the next city to ban fracking waste.

Andrew Lopez, Research Support Librarian in Government Documents and a New London resident, has been actively involved in the efforts to ban fracking waste disposal in New London and has brought the issue home to Conn. At least an estimated ten Conn students will attend the New London City Council meeting at 7 pm on Feb. 6 using transportation facilitated by SGA.

“SGA jumped right on this,” said Lopez, “I’m supposed to coordinate with the group downtown which submitted the ordinance and these guys here, so that we can have maximum impact on City Council.”

New London would be at least the eleventh municipality to pass a ban on fracking waste disposal, but the city could be more vulnerable than many of its peers due to the its demographic makeup. According to 2010 data from the U.S. Census Bureau, New London has a 28.3% Latino population compared to 13.4% statewide in Connecticut and a 17.4% African American population to Connecticut’s 10.1%. Census data from 2015 shows that the median income in New London is $36,250 to Connecticut’s $70,331, and while New London has a poverty rate of 28.6%, statewide poverty sits at 10.5%.

Regarding the potential for environmental racism and socioeconomic discrimination to elevate New London’s risk level, Lopez noted, “Historically, that’s how it’s been, right? You go to the low end of the socioeconomic spectrum, and that would make a good dumping ground.”

Calculating New London’s exact risk level regarding fracking waste disposal, however, is murky business. Lopez noted that “if there has been exposure, we don’t necessarily know.”

This, he explained, is “a problem with the federal classification of this material. The way that it’s classified or not classified means we don’t really have a way of tracking where it is or where it’s coming, and it’s just being moved around like other forms of waste.”

According to a study conducted by Nadia Steinzor for Earthworks, “Thirty years ago the Environmental Protection Agency exempted oil and gas waste from federal classification as hazardous, not because the waste isn’t hazardous, but because EPA determined state oversight was adequate.” This exemption allows fracking waste to go unmonitored at the federal level, leaving state regulation as the next line of defense. The efforts streaming from one Connecticut municipality to the next suggest that civilians do not trust their state legislature to ban fracking waste statewide.

When not properly tracked, fracking waste can be difficult to identify. CT News Junkie’s Christine Stuart explains that a waste product from fracking called “production brine” has a salinity level five times greater than that of sea water, which allows the pollutant to be used as a road de-icer. Because the waste products from fracking are not federally classified as hazardous, they can also be processed by any wastewater treatment facility without the knowledge of the citizens whose water the facility processes.

About the ambiguity of fracking waste disposal, Lopez added: “The fact that we don’t know is a reason for us to act.”

Efforts to ban fracking waste in New London and in communities across the state are unfolding while a temporary statewide moratorium on fracking waste disposal remains in place, but according to Lopez, the drive for these bans will persist regardless of whether Connecticut moves to extend the moratorium beyond its expiration date. Enacted under Gov. Malloy’s leadership in 2014, the moratorium states that no fracking waste may be disposed of in the state of Connecticut between July 1, 2014 and the same date in 2017.

On July 1 of this year, the Regulation Review Committee will decide how to move forward with fracking waste regulation, either by extending the moratorium or by replacing it with other legislation.

“We have reason to believe that they might extend it for another year,” said Lopez, “but [organizers also believe] that that’s only an excuse for not taking action, and that when they do take action, it’s not going to be prohibitive or regulatory.”

Therefore, individual cities and towns are taking prohibitive and regulatory action into their own hands. As Lopez put it, “What’s happening municipally is an attempt to preempt that inaction on the state level.”

Concerning state-level legislation, Lopez commented of Gov. Malloy: “I don’t trust him, and I don’t think he will be on our side unless we get mass mobilization. And passing these town ordinances is our attempt to communicate indirectly with people like Gov. Malloy…We want to use these town bans to show the state government: ‘We’re not interested. You can’t be dilly-dallying with this moratorium, and also you definitely can’t leave it unregulated. You can’t allow it.’ This is an attempt to drive state policy.”

Former New London Mayor Darryl Finizio has been unclear about his position on the issue. Lopez noted: “I assume he’s on board, but I don’t think I’ve seen that he signed the petition; I don’t think I’ve seen that he’s liked the Facebook page, which is our main source of communication.”

Current Mayor Michael Passero has liked the page “Ban Fracking Waste in New London” on Facebook and was called “open-minded” and “interested in the issue” by Lopez.

It is likely that the proposed fracking ban’s momentum in New London is in part a result of concerns about new seizures of power in the federal government. Lopez pointed out the appearance, on day one of the new administration, of an “America First Energy Plan,” which claims that “We must take advantage of the estimated $50 trillion in untapped shale, oil, and natural gas reserves, especially those on federal lands that the American people own.”

“When that happened,” Lopez recalled, “we said you know what, we’ve gotta go. And I think part of this enthusiasm and excitement on campus is also charged by the election results, and it’s one reason why I’m really excited about what’s happening in 2017.”

To speak to on-campus enthusiasm, Lopez noted that Siri Colom, Postdoctoral Fellow in Environmental Studies at the College, plans to coordinate a campus event with Jennifer Siskind of the Connecticut Food and Water Watch. Siskind has presented arguments against fracking waste disposal in many of the towns that have already passed fracking waste bans, and according to Lopez, “anybody who hears the argument from Jen Siskind—they’re voting no.” His hope is that Siskind will bring the same common sense and energy to New London.

Though a fracking ban appears likely for New London, its implementation is not yet certain. “Something really momentous might happen on the sixth, or it could be really anticlimactic,” Lopez clarified, “It could be sent to committee…but we have reason to believe that if they send it to committee, it’s going to go to a committee that’s allied with us on the issue.” He added that New London is far from the end of the line, but rather a potential contributor to fracking ban trend, noting: “If New London passes this, I think Waterford, Quaker Hill and Groton are going to want to pass it too.”

Connecticut, of course, is not the only state that can pass bans on fracking waste. Because the issue is up to state regulation, the municipalities in Connecticut wield the power of influence across state lines. Lopez stated with excitement: “If more and more states do this, then we show the federal government where our policies need to go, which is sort of what’s happening in 2017. I like that. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.” •