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Fracking prompts water worries

High on a list of concerns about the prospect of the first-ever gas and oil drilling in Virginia’s Coastal Plain east of Fredericksburg is whether it could contaminate water wells and the vast reservoirs of groundwater they tap into.

During two packed workshops in December hosted by Friends of the Rappahannock and Caroline County Countryside Alliance, some in the audience wondered who would be liable for water contamination from a faulty well or chemical spill, and how it could be cleaned up.

At the sessions in Bowling Green and Montross, “The interest across the counties was largely about groundwater, and . . .the effect on the landscape, along with traffic and noise,” said FOR Executive Director John Tippett, who spoke at both sessions.

Shore Exploration and Production Corp. has leased more than 80,000 acres for drilling from Colonial Beach, into Caroline and Westmoreland counties and the Middle Peninsula.

Stanley Sherrill, president of Shore, which has an office in Bowling Green, has said he hopes to begin drilling within a year.

Hydraulic fracturing, allowing the recovery of natural gas and oil not accessible by conventional drilling, has revitalized the nation’s energy industry while stirring up controversy in its wake over water issues and pollution.

The fracking process involves drilling and injecting fluids underground at high pressures to fracture rocks, releasing oil and natural gas. Dozens of chemicals are used, such as ethylene glycol and methanol, used as winterizing agents, and petroleum-based friction reducers.

Tippett said FOR will work with area residents “to help them organize to present the stiff code restrictions that are necessary to reduce the impacts from this activity.”


Meanwhile, state Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford County, filed a bill in the Virginia General Assembly that would ban fracking in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area.

Stuart said he’s talked with industry representatives who “acknowledge that certain accidents can happen, and we could have contamination as a result of that . . .. There’s a question about what could be done if that happened.”

Stuart says he doesn’t actually want to ban fracking there, but believes his bill will lead to a compromise with gas and oil interests on regulations that would protect groundwater supplies. Some fracked wells require millions of gallons of water, though how much water would be needed for drilling in the Taylorsville Basin is unclear.

“I expect that I will be able to work with [them] to come up with a substitute that would give [the Department of Environmental Quality] the jurisdiction and authority to draft all necessary regulations. . .,” Stuart said.

The bill would apply to “groundwater and the associated aquifers” in the Atlantic Coastal Plain and require the Department of Environmental Quality to adopt regulations protecting surface and groundwater resources before the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy issues a drilling permit.

An oil and gas division of DMME oversees the industry.

A second bill, filed by Del. Charles D. Poindexter, R–Franklin County, would specifically allow the use of hydraulic fracturing on state-owned uplands leased for mineral exploration and extraction. This bill would apply to western and southwestern parts of the state.

As in other areas where fracking is done—such as the Marcellus Shale formation that runs from the western edge of Virginia, through West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York—the gas and oil fields lie thousands of feet below aquifers. Those waters are pierced by drilling, but multiple layers of steel casing and concrete are used to prevent leaks and contamination. Still, critics point out that wells can fail. And on the surface, stored chemicals such as fuel and fracking agents could leak into nearby streams.


Water—above and below ground—is a big concern anywhere there’s gas and oil production. But it’s especially sensitive is spots such as the Northern Neck—nestled between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers—because water supports recreation, watermen’s and farmers’ livelihoods, and life itself for drinking. Billions of federal and state dollars are being spent to clean up the Chesapeake Bay.

Coastal Plain aquifers, according to a U.S. Geological Survey report, supply more than 150 million gallons per day to more than 900,000 people.

How large-scale gas and oil drilling would affect groundwater in the Taylorsville Basin is largely unknown because only exploratory wells have been drilled there.

Shore gathered leases in the basin in the mid-1980s, partnering with Exxon and Texaco. About a dozen test wells were drilled.

Shore wells in Colonial Beach, in the Ninde area of King George County and one in Caroline County, turned up traces of natural gas and some oil.

David Nelms, groundwater specialist with USGS, said Coastal Plain aquifers are “very different” from those in Virginia’s Valley and Ridge region where all of the state’s existing oil and gas wells are located.

Since the 1950s, hydraulic fracturing has been used on about 1,800 wells in Southwest Virginia, according to the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy. The agency reports that there have been no water-quality issues associated with production there.


Unlike the mountains, where groundwater is concentrated in layers of fractured bedrock, along the Coastal Plain it is found in pores between sediment.

Aquifers along the coast extend from hundreds to thousands of feet underground, geologists say, composed of sediments stacked like layers of a cake with varying thickness. The underground rivers are separated by clay confining zones.

The largest, by far, of about half a dozen major aquifers running through it is the Potomac aquifer, more than 1,000 feet thick in spots. That sits on bedrock and is recharged by rainfall and rivers, Nelms says.

Over thousands of years, its water migrates to the east, eventually discharging in the bay and Atlantic Ocean.

“One thing that’s unusual about it is that it is relatively deep, and is pretty good quality” due to the nature of the sediments filtering it, Nelms said.

Some water migrates between aquifers, he added, “but that is very, very slow.”

Nelms says fractured rock where gas is released during the drilling process would be far below aquifers, though the disturbed formation could be a conduit for fracking fluids. Natural fractures in rock formations do the same thing.

If a leak were to happen, “There are two issues,” he said. “Did the well cause the problem, or is it something geologic” such as a naturally occurring system of faults.

In any case, “It would be difficult to have [methane] gas or frack fluids going through thousands of feet of rock to get into potable supplies.”


Nelms says drillers can avoid potential problems by doing their homework.

“I know the industry is getting into this: you really need pre-drill monitoring” to identify sources of methane gas that can contaminate wells, for example.

If and when Shore applies for a permit, DMME would monitor the process and inspect wells regularly, a spokesman for its gas and oil division said. Any wells in the Coastal Plain would would get an added level of scrutiny, because of the water-quality concerns.

Nelms said drinking water can be tested before drilling to establish a baseline profile, in case there’s a problem later on. Some groundwater has been tested in the Coastal Plain aquifers over the years, but far more would be needed if there’s drilling.

“I can’t stress enough the importance [of companies] getting an idea of what do we have here, before you do anything. That way, you have something to compare,” Nelms said.

Greg Kozera, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, and author of “Just the Fracks, Ma’am,” a pro-industry perspective, said that while he’s not all that familiar with Shore’s plans or the geology of the Taylorsville Basin, he believes the work can be done without hurting water quality.

“Here’s why: These wells are all regulated on the state level.” And producers, he says, “are not going to do anything to impact our environment” because it’s bad for business.

Of more concern to groundwater, he said, “is a neighbor’s water well—a piece of pipe of the ground” that is more susceptible to contamination.

In some areas, “you’ve got water wells next to a pig pen. Which is more dangerous to our water supply?”

Reporter Chelyen Davis contributed to this story.

Rusty Dennen: 540/374-5431



The Environmental Protection Agency is working on a national study to better understand potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking-water resources.

The U.S. Forest Service is weighing whether to allow fracking in the George Washington National Forest, which covers more than a million acres across Virginia and West Virginia. The Virginia chapter of the Sierra Club and Environment Virginia are among conservation organizations opposing a change in the forest’s management plan.

In a recent report on global warming-related flooding in the Tidewater area, the Virginia Institute of Marine Science cautioned that before drilling is allowed in the Coastal Plain, “extensive studies would be necessary to ensure that extraction did not exacerbate sea level rise issues.”

—Rusty Dennen


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