Bay Daily readers know well that horizontal hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is controversial. Fracking is a process used to drill and extract natural gas from deep underground Marcellus shale formations, a type of rock that underlies some parts of the country, including portions of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
It involves drilling a mile or more into the earth, then drilling horizontally into the shale, pumping a mix of sand, water, and chemicals under high pressure to crack the rock and force natural gas trapped there to the surface.
Areas around the country where fracking has been extensively done report a host of unsettling problems and concerns -- contamination of drinking water wells, pollution of surface waters, mishandling of drilling wastewater, runoff pollution, air pollution, forest fragmentation, unsustainable truck traffic, and the industrialization of once quiet, rural areas.
In the Chesapeake Bay region, New York is considering new rules that will likely influence whether an existing halt to all fracking continues; Maryland is examining the issues before allowing fracking to proceed there; Pennsylvanians are re-evaluating that state’s drilling regulations in light of a frenzy of well permit applications; and West Virginia’s governor just signed an executive order calling for emergency fracking rules.
In Virginia, the state minerals and mining agency has approved a gas company’s permit to do hydro-fracking in Rockingham County, but the county’s governing board of supervisors has taken no action on a necessary special use permit, citing the need for more information about potential impacts and safeguards to public interests.
Against this backdrop, the U.S. Forest Service recently issued a draft management plan for the George Washington National Forest in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. The draft plan will guide activities in the forest over the next 15 years and proposes to ban horizontal hydro-fracking in the Marcellus shale lying beneath the forest. Other, more traditional forms of gas mining would be permitted. Currently, there is no active gas mining of any kind in the forest.
The Forest Service’s prohibition on horizontal fracking is in response to concerns expressed by local governments and citizens in the region who obtain drinking water from the watersheds that begin in the forest. More than 260,000 Shenandoah Valley residents get their water supply from the forest area.
As the experience in Pennsylvania has shown, gas recovery from Marcellus shale using hyro-fracking is moving forward at breakneck speed but has been linked to contamination of shallow drinking water aquifers and pollution of streams by spills and poorly treated wastes. Fracking has outpaced the knowledge of its risks and the enactment of appropriate safeguards to protect local communities. For that reason, the Forest Service’s decision to prohibit horizontal fracking in the next forest plan is well justified and represents a sensible precaution in light of concerns about its impact on water quality.
Predictably, the Forest Service’s cautious approach is being attacked by mining interests and their political supporters in Congress, despite frank testimony on behalf of Virginia citizens and the local governments whose drinking water is most at risk.
But here’s where you can help. The Forest Service plan is now open for public comment. The next public meeting on the plan is Monday, July 18, from 6:30-9:00 p.m. in Verona, Va. (Augusta County Government Center, 18 Government Center Lane, Verona, VA). Written comments are being accepted through Sept. 1.
Don’t you think the drinking water supply for hundreds of thousands of citizens should be protected? Shouldn’t citizens have a say about the best and safest public use of this national forest, which is among the largest tracts of federal land in the Chesapeake Bay watershed?
Should “Drill, Baby, Drill” be the nation’s only priority?
Chesapeake Bay Foundation
(Photos by Tom Pelton/CBF)