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NY Town Board Rescinds Ban on Fracking Talk

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A town in New York’s Southern Tier has rescinded a gag order on public discussion of fracking during town board meetings. Two groups had sued the town, alleging violation of First Amendment rights. The Town Board denies liability.

The Southern Tier sits atop the Marcellus Shale formation, an area targeted for gas drilling in a controversial process known as high-volume hydraulic fracturing, or fracking. Fracking has been put on hold in New York State pending environmental and health studies. Many farmers and others in the Southern Tier are waiting to reap the monetary benefits from the natural gas that lies below the land under their feet, including in the Town of Sanford in Broome County. The Sanford Town Board recently repealed a gag order it had imposed in September, after two groups filed suit in February, alleging the Town Board violated free speech rights. Kate Sinding is Senior Attorney with the Natural Resources Defense Council, one of the groups that filed suit.

The town’s gag order banned all fracking comments, not just those from opponents. Asked whether this is the first case of its kind with which the NRDC has worked, Sinding replies:

Robert Freeman is executive director of the New York State Committee on Open Government.

When asked whether the case is the first of its kind in New York, Freeman says:

And, he points out, given the Town Board banned all talk about fracking, the Board was within in its rights to do so.

Nonetheless, after obtaining legal advice, the Town Board recently issued a resolution saying that while it believes its policy is valid, and that the Board has a substantial likelihood of prevailing in the litigation, it has concluded that the cost to defend the action will be prohibitive. Therefore, the Board has decided to rescind the September 11, 2012 resolution banning all public comment on fracking. The resolution also notes that the September resolution was put in place after public comments regarding fracking were disrupting and greatly lengthening Board meetings. And so the NRDC and Catskill Citizens for Safe Energy has agreed to dismiss the case.

The NRDC’s Sinding maintains that the silencing of all fracking comments was an effort to silence the opponents. The Committee on Open Government’s Robert Freeman weighs in.

Attempts to reach the Sanford town supervisor and board members were unsuccessful. It has been reported that the supervisor and at least some of the board members support drilling, and have an interest in fracking being permitted in New York State, having passed a resolution awhile back urging the state to allow fracking. The town of Sanford sits along the border of Delaware County as well as with Pennsylvania, which does have fracking.

New York State’s health commissioner, who has been looking at health studies on fracking, had said in March he planned to make a recommendation to Governor Andrew Cuomo in weeks on whether the state should approve hydraulic fracturing.

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