AERIAL IMAGE OF FRACKING ACTIVITY DIRECTLY NEXT TO THE OHIO RIVER IN MARSHALL COUNTY, WEST VIRGINIA. Photo credit: Dave Warner & FracTracker Alliance

INTRODUCTION

Virginians have always treasured and relied on our waters to provide fresh drinking water, support healthy ecosystems, and sustain our economy — from the productive, historic Chesapeake Bay; its mountain headwaters; and the Clinch and Powell Rivers (which host some of Earth’s most diverse fish and mussel populations) to our underground aquifers, springs, and “losing” streams.

Industrial gas development and hydraulic fracturing (fracking) threaten our waters. Over the past decade, drillers have shown interest in expanding this industry from the coalfields of Southwest Virginia to the farmlands of the Shenandoah Valley and waterfront communities of Tidewater. We must act now to protect our water, our health, and our communities.

BACKGROUND

Natural gas formations exist throughout Virginia, including in the coalbeds of Southwest Virginia and shale underlying the Shenandoah Valley and Tidewater. While there has been interest in pursuing all of these gas plays, drilling currently occurs in Southwest Virginia only.

Extracting gas is an intense industrial activity. Fracking breaks up underground coal and shale so that gas can flow to the surface. While the precise method varies based on local geology and conditions, drillers generally inject water, chemicals, and sand at high pressure to fracture the rock. The Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals, and Energy (DMME) reports that thousands of wells have been fracked in Southwest Virginia.

Gas drilling threatens the health and quality of life for those living near fracking sites and compressor stations. For example, noise and light pollution from around-the-clock operations disrupt sleep and cause headaches, hypertension, and cardiovascular problems. Methane leaks and other emissions pollute the air, increasing risks of respiratory illness and even congenital heart defects. Scientific research increasingly documents a causal connection between fracking and earthquakes. Given the proximity of the Taylorsville Basin to nuclear power plants like Lake Anna and Calvert Hills, this raises serious questions about the suitability of fracking in this region. Work truck traffic damages and clogs small, rural roads. Lower property values can persist for decades after drilling stops.

“PEER-REVIEWED STUDIES LINK FRACKING CHEMICALS TO A VARIETY OF HEALTH CONCERNS, INCLUDING RESPIRATORY AND NEUROLOGICAL PROBLEMS; CANCER; AND ENDOCRINE DISRUPTION LINKED TO CANCERS, INFERTILITY, AND BIRTH DEFECTS.”

In addition to the drastic impacts of gas drilling and fracking on the quality and way of life for local, largely rural communities, they pose serious risks of contaminating surface waters and groundwater — this includes Virginia’s Potomac Aquifer, which provides drinking water to approximately 2.5 million Virginians. Consider the following:

  • Comprehensive Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) report documents fracking activities can lead to water contamination at every stage, sometimes rendering drinking water sources totally unusable (2016);
  • Stanford University study, led by former EPA scientist, links fracking waste to contaminated drinking water wells in Wyoming, suggesting fracking chemicals contaminated entire groundwater resource in natural gas basin (2016);
  • Investigation by DMME concludes drilling operation contaminated nearby drinking water well (2008);
  • Pennsylvania reveals drilling activities contaminated 243 private drinking wells (2014); and
  • Texas floods cause oil and fracking chemicals to flush into nearby rivers (2016).

Surface spills and fracking wastewater pit failures are the most frequent sources of water contamination. Causes include tank ruptures, impoundment failures, overfills, accidents, equipment defects, and human error. In addition, solid fracking waste, drilling muds, and cuttings can contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (NORM) and heavy metals that can leach into groundwater and contaminate soils:

  • DMME investigator finds pit fluid and cuttings escaped a waste pit and settled in nearby spring that provided drinking water to nearby resident (2008); and
  • 866 tons of radioactive drilling waste from West Virginia dumped illegally in Kentucky landfill (2015).

These failures can have profound health effects. Peer-reviewed studies link fracking chemicals to a variety of health concerns, including respiratory and neurological problems; cancer; and endocrine disruption linked to cancers, infertility, and birth defects.

CONCLUSION

Virginia’s waters are a tremendous asset and critical to the health and way of life for millions of Virginians. The Virginia General Assembly must institute commonsense protections in the 2019 legislative session to address the documented risks that gas drilling and fracking pose to public health, our communities, and our environment.

POLICY RECOMMENDATIONS

The Virginia General Assembly needs to proactively address the significant risks associated with industrial gas development. Options include a regional or statewide moratorium on fracking, as well as stronger regulatory protections for Virginia’s people, environment, and natural resources:

• Prohibit use of surface pits for fracking waste;
• Require safe management and disposal of contaminated wastewater and solid waste, including radioactive material; and
• Increase financial assurances requirements for drillers and funding to DMME for compliance and enforcement.

Any attempt to weaken existing environmental, health, and safety laws and regulations is unacceptable, including Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) loopholes that would excuse drillers from disclosing fracking chemicals they use.

Local land use authority must be maintained with respect to oil and gas development.

AUTHORS
Kristin Davis // Southern Environmental Law Center
Bryan Hofmann // Friends of the Rappahannock
Kate Wofford // Alliance for the Shenandoah Valley
Corrina Beall // Virginia Chapter Sierra Club