Wednesday, March 8, 2017


In late February, the Augusta County Board of Supervisors voted to ban hydraulic fracturing by way of a zoning ordinance, making it the first county in the Old Dominion to totally prohibit the invasive natural gas drilling practice. The move has been praised by sportsmen and conservation groups, as it effectively protects clean water and wildlife in the county, which includes 193,000 acres of the George Washington National Forest and countless headwater streams.
A fracking drill pad in the Pine Creek Valley of Pennsylvania. Photo by Matt Reilly.

    Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking,” is the process of pumping pressurized chemicals, water, and sand down drill holes in the ground to crack open fissures in shale which contain small amounts of natural gas.

    The practice poses potential public and environmental health issues, since spills threaten to contaminate ground or surface water with hydrocarbons and other fracking fluids. The chemicals included in the pressurized fracking fluids are often undisclosed, and different companies use different mixtures. Such lack of transparency has been cause for suspicion.

    Furthermore, constructing a drill pad requires the clear-cutting of several acres of forest. Lights on the drills are often left on at night, illuminating surrounding forest and disrupting normal wildlife habits.

    But the impacts of fracking are hardly felt just at the drill site. Infrastructure is necessary to construct the pads and to shuttle materials and product. Roads must be constructed for the large trucks that are used to haul equipment and the actual drill to the site. Pipelines—akin to the proposed Atlantic Coast Pipeline—are necessary for funneling captured gas to market. Both of these structures inevitably cross many headwater streams.

    Considering the current need to harness new energy sources in the United States, and considering the alternative strategies, fracking natural gas doesn’t stand to be an environmental no-go, as continued coal mining could be labeled. However, it must be done responsibly and transparently. That means knowing where fracking is a responsible choice and where it is not.

    In the Blue Ridge Mountains of western Virginia, the construction of roads and natural gas pipelines crossing headwater mountain streams would be a risky gamble of our prized native brook trout—the official state fish—, the ecological health downstream, and the state’s water supply. Nearly four million people—whether they know it or not—source their drinking water from National Forest land in Virginia, including those living in Richmond and D.C.

    What’s more, much of Augusta’s geology is “karst,” meaning it is comprised of soluble rock, commonly limestone and dolomite. Thus, any pipeline leak would be very likely to contaminate groundwater in a large area and eventually reach surface water.

    Despite the potential dangers, the National Forest Service allows hydraulic fracturing on forest lands across the country. However, following a November 2014 announcement, the current plan for the George Washington National Forest allows hydraulic fracturing on 177,000 acres, where private mineral rights and leases to oil and gas companies are pre-existing.

    Augusta County’s decision to ban such activities is, in fact, legal. The Virginia Code grants local governments the authority to “regulate, restrict, permit, prohibit, and determine” land uses, such as “the excavation or mining of soil or other natural resources.”

    Still, the decision to install an outright ban on fracking may ruffle some industry feathers, though some experts speculate that a ban will be more effective in deflecting potential lawsuits than a seemingly always-porous regulatory process. Regardless, considering what we have to lose in the mountains of Augusta County, the ban is essential.

    Augusta County’s assertion of a ban on fracking is a clear and confident placement of the value of natural resource health and clean drinking water over the potential gain offered by natural gas fracking.

*Originally published in The Rural Virginian

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