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Martinkovic plans ahead for coming gas drilling

By Dan Hust
MONTICELLO — June 29, 2910 — Upstate emergency management officials have told Sullivan County, including its Public Safety Commissioner Richard Martinkovic, to be ready for gas drilling, no matter how long off it may seem to be.
That includes Matt Beckwith, Chenango County’s fire coordinator and director of emergency management.
No more than two rigs have been drilling in Chenango County at any given time, said Beckwith. And right now, the area is experiencing a lull in activity – likely due to the ongoing rewriting of state rules.
Still, Beckwith is adamant that counties plan ahead for drilling’s impacts – a message he brought recently to Sullivan County in a meeting with Martinkovic.
“My recommendation is to be on the forefront with them,” he said. “The key to it is to just take a step back and educate yourself.”
Martinkovic heard the same from another colleague: Michael Smith, Chemung County’s Fire and Emergency Management director. He oversees 20 fire departments (the county, interestingly, has no volunteer ambulance corps).
Chemung County has about 60 active gas wells, said Smith, and the county seat of Elmira has become a hub for companies that provide equipment, personnel and other support for the drilling industry, active locally for the past 15 years.
Smith has spent 19 years in his position yet could recall only one notable emergency involving natural gas companies.
“Seven or eight years ago, a gas compressor station caught fire,” he said.
Electrical in origin, the fire destroyed the station but did not result in any gas leaks, thanks to installed safety equipment.
“We’ve really had no incidents,” Smith remarked. “I’d have to say our experience has been pretty favorable.”
Chemung County requires that every wellpad be assigned a 911 address and that drillers provide site maps with up-to-date information on personnel, equipment and procedures at each wellpad.
The county is considering developing a guide for the drillers, as well, to address road use and emergency response, among other issues.
Additionally, Smith is chairing a county subcommittee studying hydrofracking, though so far he doesn’t seem that worried about the controversial process which can involve carcinogenic chemicals.
“We have far more unpleasant materials transported through our communities on a daily basis by train and truck,” he said.
Martinkovic is not interested in jumping into that debate, however.
“I’m not an expert nor can I talk about fracking fluids,” he said. “That’s more of an environmental issue, not a fire issue.”
The NYS Department of Environmental Conservation has the jurisdiction in that arena.
Still, Martinkovic said he will insist that drillers provide emergency responders with a list of all the ingredients in such fluid.
“We have to know what the product is that’s in there,” he acknowledged. “If they don’t, trust me, we will raise holy hell… because we have a responsibility to protect people.”
Making safety a priority
He agreed with his counterparts that advance coordination and planning are key to working with a locally new and potentially widespread industry.
He wants to know not only how the drillers and responders will interact, but where equipment and infrastructure will be located, how fluids will be trucked in and out of the drilling sites, and what kind of safety precautions will be in place before, during and after emergencies.
Such discussions are currently not mandated by the state, though that could change when the DEC releases its new rules on drilling later this year. (That’s one of the things Sullivan County officials advocated for in the DEC’s comment period.)
Even if such a mandate is not forthcoming, Martinkovic expects the kind of cooperation his upstate colleagues have gotten from drillers – indeed, he plans to demand it.
“Quite frankly, they don’t want us coming after them for public safety,” he warned.

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