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Fracking bill requires new regulations

RICHMOND—A Senate committee on Thursday approved a bill that lets oil and gas fracking in Virginia’s coastal plain go forward, but only after the Department of Environmental Quality develops regulations.

Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford, said he brought the bill because he fears fracking could contaminate a vast aquifer that supplies water from Hanover County up through Maryland, including the Fredericksburg area and the Northern Neck.

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

Stuart told the Senate Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources Committee that he met with company executives, and they couldn’t guarantee him there would never be water contamination from drilling activities.

That worried him, he said. So did the fact that the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy has little authority to regulate groundwater—something that could be affected more in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management area, Stuart said, than in other areas of the state where mining and fracking are already going on.

His bill requires the DEQ to develop regulations on fracking in that particular area. Those regulations should be drafted by the end of this year and be in final form by mid-2016.

“The most important thing it appeared to me was that DEQ have jurisdiction … to ensure the integrity of the aquifer and surface waters,” Stuart said.

His bill originally banned fracking in that area entirely, although Stuart has said that was simply a placeholder bill while he worked out a compromise with drilling industry representatives.

They do back his bill, said Stuart, as did environmental groups.

“It does not address all the conservation community’s concerns; we’d sought a stronger role for DEQ [but] this bill is a huge help,” said Cale Jaffey of the Southern Environmental Law Center.

Several people from the Fredericksburg area and the Northern Neck also came to speak on the bill.

Lois Smith, of Spotsylvania, said she was glad to see a bill “that will make sure we’re not going to have our water messed up.”

Two county supervisors, Ruby Brabo of King George and Rosemary Mahan of Westmoreland, also said they back the bill.

“This is not being for or against fracking. This is about protecting the one and only water source for our community,” Brabo said.

Susan Rager, of Coles Point, took a dim view of the potential impact on water from fracking, but said Stuart’s bill would at least give the state some oversight.

“I’m the face of everybody that you have in rural Virginia that does not have a lobbyist or a paid person to come up here, and I am begging you for our drinking water. Our wells are the only thing that enables us to live, in my instance in the house where I was born,” she said. “We do not need this process in our part of the state. What other people choose to do with their futures, it’s not in my backyard. This is in my backyard. … At least pass this and look for more.”

The committee complied, passing Stuart’s bill. Sen. Phillip Puckett, D–Russell, also asked a DEQ representative to return to the legislature with a report on the regulations.

Stuart’s bill will now go to the full Senate.

Chelyen Davis: 804/343-2245

cdavis@freelancestar.com

 

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