What does an 1832 cholera breakout have to do with fracking?
Last August in Denver during the keynote speech at an energy industry conference, Dave Lesar, the CEO of Halliburton, conducted a remarkable demonstration: drinking from a glass of hydraulic fracturing fluid. This was done apparently to prove how safe fracking fluid is, for people individually, underground water supplies particularly and the environment generally.
Lesar did not do the drinking himself; for reasons that are unclear, he passed the glass to another Halliburton executive, who quaffed and did not drop dead. The corporate food tester was subsequently identified publicly as Halliburton Chief Financial Officer Mark McCollum. He reportedly pronounced that fracking fluid “tastes like beer.” McCollum presumably has been a teetotaler since.
This antic recalls Richard (Dicky) Riker. Back in the early 1830s in New York City, Riker claimed that he drank a pint of Manhattan Co. water every morning and that he and his family “enjoy good health.” Riker was the city’s longtime chief legal officer and, in that capacity, was also an ex officio director of the Manhattan Co., the notorious water business founded 30 years earlier by Aaron Burr.
Burr’s water company, established with the unwitting blessing of the state Legislature, proved to be a cover for his chief purpose, founding a bank. The company’s monopoly water operations, employing foul local wells and leaky wooden pipes, were deficient and deplorable and, after preventing a proper solution to the city’s freshwater needs for 40 years, eventually ceased; the company’s bank, however, matured into what is today JPMorgan Chase.
Riker’s drinking claim, given during Common (now City) Council debate in 1831 on whether the Manhattan Co. should be stripped of its charter, made him the subject of lampoon and ridicule as a company apologist until the end of his days in 1842, amid citywide celebrations for the completion of the Croton Aqueduct. The iconic Croton, supplying pure and abundant water from the Westchester mainland, delivered the city from disease and was the first piece in the city’s now vast modern supply that fracking opponents and certain public officials are concerned about preserving.
The Manhattan Co. was the first water tragedy for New York City. Its monopoly water powers, fiercely defended by company lawyers to preserve the company’s associated banking rights, prevented the emergence of a better private or public supply until Asiatic cholera killed 3,500 — one in 70 — New Yorkers in 1832 and prompted civic-minded political leaders to secure the Croton over diminishing Manhattan Co. resistance.
Incredibly, the city has had no other major water tragedy since. There was the near-fiasco of the Ramapo Water Co. in the late 1890s, which featured a Tammany Hall-backed scheme to restrict the city from seeking additional water supplies from anywhere but a private company that controlled water rights in the Catskills. A hasty, stealthy and expensive contract between the company and the city was broken with bold action by city Controller Bird Coler and Gov. Theodore Roosevelt; the U.S. Supreme Court, in an opinion by Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., crushed the Ramapo schemers for good in 1915. The city, by then with a population in the several millions relying on the insufficient Croton, soon expanded its own public water supply into the Catskills, now ground zero in the fight over fracking.
The greatest part of Greater New York is islands. For many generations, there has not been enough good water on or under any of these islands to sustain an urban population. Water for 8 million people must come from mainland watersheds as much as 120 miles from City Hall. With a relatively stable population, the city has not needed much new supply since the 1960s; since then and probably for the rest of the city’s existence, the main responsibility of government executives, bureaucrats and legislators regarding water is to preserve and protect the half-trillion gallons that New Yorkers use for drinking, bathing, cooking, cleaning, heating, cooling and many other conceivable processes every year.
If fracking is allowed and harms — as many convincingly allege that it will — the drinkability of water that goes to the city, the millions of people who make an exodus from the city in search of another place to live will forever hold responsible those leaders who let this calamity come about.
Just as the Riker name stood for abject foolishness to the thirsty New Yorkers of the pre-Croton years and survives, appropriately perhaps, as the jail on an island his family owned, the name of some 21st century New York politician is awaiting possible enshrinement as the person who made New York unlivable. No one could possibly want to risk such a legacy.
Koeppel is the author of “Water for Gotham: A History.”
Fracking is not known to have any contaminated drinking water to date.