Virginia is facing a new era of industrial gas development. In addition to the possibility of drilling for shale gas in new areas of the state, drillers now seek to use high-volume hydraulic fracturing (fracking) with horizontal drilling, a combination not historically used in Virginia. In recent years, there has been interest in expanding these practices into both the Shenandoah Valley and Tidewater regions. Both of these regions, as well as other parts of the state, have unique geology and sensitive water resources that merit protection from the risks associated with fracking. This includes karst topography and headwaters in the Valley and the Potomac Aquifer — which provide fresh drinking groundwater to approximately 2.5 million Virginians — as well as the Chesapeake Bay in the Tidewater region.
Before the Commonwealth starts down this path, the Virginia General Assembly should ensure that:
- No legislation weakens or undermines any aspect of the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) regulations, which were updated in December 2016 after years of active involvement by citizens, industry, and other stakeholders;
- Stronger commonsense protections are in place statewide to protect the people, environment, and natural resources of Virginia; and
- Local communities continue to have the right to decide whether or how modern fracking could be compatible with their community’s vision.
High-volume hydraulic fracturing is a drilling technique in which millions of gallons of water, sand, and/or chemicals are forced underground at high pressure to break up rock and release the oil or gas within. Horizontal drilling allows a drill to turn 90 degrees underground so that it runs parallel to the surface, allowing greater horizontal access to rock. By combining high-volume hydraulic fracturing with horizontal drilling, we are presented with today’s modern fracking boom. This is different from the type of drilling historically done in the coalfields of Southwestern Virginia.
Modern fracking is an intense industrial activity that has drastic impacts on local communities. In the Marcellus Shale region in Pennsylvania, an average well uses 4.2 million gallons of water each time it is fracked. That water is often delivered by the truckload, resulting in thousands of truck trips along rural roads — a single heavy truck delivering water causes the same amount of road damage as 9,000 cars. Once the water from the fracking process returns to the surface, it is a waste byproduct held in open pits nearby. It is eventually trucked offsite, adding more wear and tear to local roads.
Contamination of groundwater and surface water is a significant concern for local residents, businesses, localities, and others. As an increasing body of research confirms, industrial gas development with fracking can — and does — contaminate water:
- A comprehensive report from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) documents that fracking activities can lead to water contamination, sometimes rendering drinking water sources totally unusable (2016);
- A Stanford University study, led by a former EPA scientist, links fracking waste to contaminated drinking water wells in Wyoming and suggests that fracking chemicals contaminated an entire groundwater resource in a natural gas basin (2016);
- U.S. Geological Survey scientists determine that wastewater storage at a West Virginia site contributed to contamination of downstream water and sediment (2016);
- A study by U.S. Geological Survey, Duke University, and University of Missouri confirms higher levels of endocrine-disrupting chemicals downstream of a West Virginia fracking wastewater storage site (2016);
- A Duke University study indicates fracking wastewater spills in North Dakota have caused widespread water and soil contamination (2016);
- A report indicates that 90 of the 615 oil and chemical spills reported in Colorado in 2015 contaminated groundwater (2016);
- Pennsylvania reveals that 243 private drinking wells were contaminated by oil and gas activity (2014); and
- Texas floods cause oil and fracking chemicals to flush into nearby rivers (2016).
Solid waste from fracking operations is also a concern. Drilling muds and cuttings can contain naturally-occurring radioactive materials and heavy metals that can leach into groundwater and contaminate soils. In late 2015, 866 tons of radioactive drilling waste from West Virginia were illegally dumped into a Kentucky landfill.
Noise and light pollution also pose serious concerns for residents living in communities near fracking sites and compressor stations. These loud industrial operations run 24 hours per day, seven days per week. In addition, the miles of gathering and transmission pipelines cut across properties, visually dissecting rural communities. Maryland and New York have determined that the risks to their states from fracking are just too great. Maryland banned fracking in 2017, and New York banned the activity in 2015. If this practice is to be allowed in Virginia, the Virginia General Assembly should begin to address the documented risks posed by modern fracking on local communities and Virginians by instituting commonsense protections including the following:
- Eliminate the use of waste pits;
- Require safe management and disposal of contaminated wastewater and solid waste from fracking sites;
- Ensure adequate statewide siting restrictions that protect waterbodies and other public resources;
- Enforce erosion and sediment control standards; and
- Require DMME to consult with state agencies (including the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality and Department of Health) prior to issuing oil and gas permits.
Virginians are engaged deeply on the issue of modern fracking in the Commonwealth and are concerned about the documented risks it poses to local citizens, communities, and the environment. During the 2018 session, the Virginia General Assembly should reject any bills that would weaken or undermine any of the current protections in DMME oil and gas regulations, which Virginia citizens have helped shape through years of public discourse and involvement. In particular, the Virginia General Assembly should reject any loopholes which would erode mandatory public disclosure of fracking chemicals — this includes Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) exemptions for certain fracking chemicals. Such FOIA exemption proposals were rejected in 2016 and defeated in 2017 with bi- partisan opposition. The Virginia General Assembly should also strongly protect localities’ authority over oil and gas development, as well as other land uses.
Water quality and safety protections currently in Virginia law must not be eroded. Any attempt to weaken current environmental, health, and safety laws and regulations is unacceptable.
Local land use authority must be maintained with respect to oil and gas development.
Stronger commonsense protections should be put in place statewide to protect the people, environment, and natural resources of Virginia.
Written by Emily Francis | on behalf of Southern Environmental Law Center and Friends of the Rappahannock
For additional information on fracking in the Taylorsville Basin please contact: FOR River Steward Richard Moncure.