Written by Abram Goldman-Armstrong for Ale Street News. Ommegang picture courtesy media.cleveland.com
Located on 147 acres in rural New York, Brewery Ommegang, makes fine Belgian-inspired ales with water from three wells on their land. It’s an idyllic, pastoral, setting in which to brew beers reminiscent of the Belgian abbey tradition. Soon, however, the brewery’s water supply may be under the threat of contamination.
The process of hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is being used to extract natural gas from shale deposits, such as the Marcellus Shale, a formation of shale that extends throughout Ohio, Pennsylvania and much of Western New York. The process involves injecting a slurry of chemicals deep into the earth The byproduct is contaminated water, which there is currently no process which to treat. Groundwater near where fracking occurs can become contaminated with heavy metals and hydrocarbons from the process. Some places on the Marcellus Shale have seen contamination become so bad that it becomes toxic.
“Fracking has been banned in the New York City watershed and the Syracuse watershed by (New York) DEC as too dangerous,” says Ommegang’s Larry Bennett. “We want to be treated the same way. It threatens breweries across Upstate New York that are not on municipal water systems.”
For brewers a source of pure brewing water is a highly important aspect of brewery location. “It’s part of why we’re here.” Bennett says of the water at Ommegang, “If the water is contaminated you can’t filter the heavy metals or the hydrocarbons out.”
The State of New York currently has a moratorium on horizontal fracking, which is the most dangerous part of the process., though vertical wells are still permitted. Gas and oil companies keep leasing land from people across the state in anticipation of a decision on fracking later this year.
A coalition of environmental groups released a statement in January blasting a draft environmental statement from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. One of the aspects the group felt was lacking from the latest draft of the report was the negative socioeconomic impact of fracking. As Ommegang sees it, if fracking occurs near them they really only have three options: close the brewery, move the brewery, or truck in water, which Bennett says is not economically feasible for the company. Ommegang is a major employer in the local community, and has been growing steadily since it’s founding.
In 2011, the Township of Milford, in which Ommegang is located, passed a zoning rule that prohibits heavy industry, and will prevent mining and drilling. The ruling is being challenged in court by local dairy farmer, Jennifer Huntington, who has leased her land to a gas company, and says the township cannot tell her how she can make money on her own land. Huntington filed a lawsuit last September, and Ommegang has filed an amicus brief in the case supporting the township. The brewery is literally down the road from Huntington’s farm, in fact it’s less than three miles away, so any fracking on her land would likely impact the brewery’s wells.
Bennett says concerned beer drinkers should contact their legislators. New York is expected to issue a ruling on fracking soon, and the federal EPA is due to release a study on the practice this fall, Breweries need fuel for their brew kettles, but without clean water to brew with there’s not much point of having gas to burn.