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Rappahannock Water Quality Endangered by Fracking?

Rappahannock River

Rappahannock River. Image credit: American Rivers.

American Rivers has listed the Rappahannock River as the fifth “most endangered” river in the United States. The environmental group claims the river is threatened by industry interest in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the Taylorsville Basin lying thousands of feet beneath the river. The quality of drinking water of three million people in eastern Virginia are at stake.

The Rappahannock joins company with the Lower Colorado River (the most endangered), which is threatened by excess water consumption; California’s Bear River, which is imperiled by a new dam; the South Fork Skykomish River in Washington, which is jeopardized by a new hydropower project; and six other rivers. These rivers are not necessarily the most polluted. Rather, American Rivers highlights in its “America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2017” report ten rivers whose fates will be affected by the political process in the upcoming year.

The watershed of the Rappahannock, the longest free-flowing river in Virginia, encompasses all or parts of 18 counties, the report notes, and supports thriving agricultural and seafood sectors as well as recreational activity.

American Rivers is concerned that 85,000 acres in five counties along the tidal Rappahannock are leased for oil and gas exploration. Only one of the five counties has enacted a land use ordinance to protect against the impact of fracking. Last year, Governor Terry McAuliffe approved new regulations that would require baseline water testing and monitoring along with the disclosure of any chemicals used in the fracking process. The oil and gas lobby introduced legislation to weaken the regs in the 2017 General Assembly session, but the effort was beaten back. Says American Rivers:

It is clear that the threats that industrial gas development and fracking pose to the rural and agricultural communities along the Rappahannock River are not going away. The first line of defense lies with local government, which has the power to establish local protections to protect the drinking water for millions of citizens.

Last  year Prince George County amended its zoning ordinance to require hefty setbacks for gas wells, effectively making 91% of the county unavailable for drilling. But Westmoreland, Essex, Caroline, and King and Queen Counties have yet to act.

Here’s the source of concern: Gas companies must drill through the Potomac Aquifer to reach the gas in the Taylorsville Basin, which is reported to contain more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of gas consumed in Virginia in a year. Fracking injects sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the rock sufficiently for oil and gas to flow through it. Although oil and gas companies seal off drill holes where they pass through aquifers, environmentalists claim that potentially toxic chemicals still can leak into the Potomac Aquifer and, from there, eventually into the Rappahannock River.

Bacon’s bottom line: Environmental groups are adamant that fracking represents a danger to the aquifer and water supply. The oil and gas industry is equally insistent that fracking poses minimal risk. Each side cites seemingly authoritative studies. Who knows?

The Taylorsville Basin contains maybe one-fortieth the volume of gas contained in the famed Marcellus Basin, which has transformed energy economics in the United States, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. The gas has an economic value of $2 billion to $4 billion, maybe more, depending upon the current price of natural gas. That represents a lot of economic activity for five economically depressed rural counties.

Admittedly, a billion dollars or so in local payroll and royalties won’t be much consolation if fracking ruins the water supply. But more than 8,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in Southwest Virginia with no documented instances of surface or groundwater contamination, according to state geologist David Spears.

The McAuliffe administration made a prudent decision, it seems to me, to establish a baseline of data on Potomac Aquifer water quality and to require gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. If chemicals used in fracking are not found in the aquifer but suddenly appear after drilling begins, it is not unreasonable to conclude that fracking created the problem. Conversely, if none of the chemicals show up in the aquifer, no harm is likely being done.

Regardless, the American Rivers report signals that the Taylorsville Basin is on the radar screen of national environmental groups. I expect they will pour considerable resources into fighting development of the basin. Linking that fight to the conservation of the treasured Rappahannock River is shrewd public relations.