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Speakers urge officials’ input in fracking debate

As an environmental group continues to hold informational meetings about drilling for natural gas, speakers stress that local officials should take an active role in deciding what happens in their counties.

They can’t leave the matter to state and federal governments or the agency that’s supposed to regulate the industry, said former state Del. Albert Pollard.

At a meeting Monday in Essex County, Pollard criticized the state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, the agency charged with monitoring the gas and oil industry.

He said he asked an agency official at the Northern Neck Planning District Commission in late January if the DMME’s purpose is to regulate drillers or be an advocate for them.

It’s both, the official said, according to Pollard.

Jerry Davis, executive director of the planning district, said on Tuesday that he also heard the DMME official say that and identified him as Rick Cooper, director of the division of gas and oil.

“In my mind they have crossed the line,” Pollard said about the DMME. “You cannot both advocate [for] and regulate somebody at the same time.”

DMME spokesperson Tarah Kesterson gave a different view of the agency’s role Tuesday morning.

“We are not an advocate for the industry,” she wrote in an email. “We are a permitting and regulatory agency.”

Pollard related his story and other comments before a group of about 20 people in Tappahannock on Monday night.

He and Richard Moncure, the river steward for the Friends of the Rappahannock, gave the presentation, which also was sponsored by the Essex County Countryside Alliance.

Much of the information was similar to what’s been discussed at other sessions elsewhere, with larger crowds.

FOR is holding more neighborhood meetings, like the one at the old Beale Memorial Baptist Church on Monday, as it presents “Fracking 101,” Moncure said.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process of injecting high volumes of water, sand and chemicals deep into the ground to fracture the rock and release trapped gas.

A Dallas-based company, Shore Oil and Exploration Corp., has leased more than 84,000 acres in Essex and four other counties—Caroline, King George, King and Queen and Westmoreland—and hopes to start drilling by the end of this year or mid-2015.

Pollard tailored some of his remarks in response to comments from Shore officials at a recent town hall meeting.

Edmund DeJarnette Jr., chairman of the board of Shore, stressed April 14 that his company wants to frack with nitrogen instead of water. People have expressed concerns about the vast amounts of water required during the process, and how water has to be trucked to and from the well sites.

Each time a well is fracked hydraulically, between 4 million and 6 million gallons of water are used, Pollard said.

There’s already an issue with the water table in the Potomac aquifer, Pollard said. Levels have dropped faster in recent years than they’ve been replenished, he said.

“It seems that Shore is saying it would use nitrogen to put people at ease,” suggested Hill Welford, an Essex County attorney at the meeting.

Pollard said he believes the Shore officials are “decent and honest people,” but wasn’t sure if they touted nitrogen fracking “as a political statement or a policy statement.”

What’s more, DeJarnette said Shore probably won’t be the one to make the ultimate decision. His company plans to sell the leases to a partner, which will have the final say-so with how wells are drilled.

At these informational meetings, speakers have stressed that homeowners should get baseline studies of their water done before drilling begins.

Welford wondered if Essex and other counties in the Taylorsville basin could require drillers to do those studies.

“I believe they could,” Pollard said.

Welford stressed that homeowners have no basis to prove their water is polluted by fracking, if they don’t have their water tested before drilling begins.

“If you don’t have the baseline study, then you’re really up against it, because you then have to mitigate against their resources,” Welford said, “and most people can’t do that.”

Moncure and Pollard praised Essex County officials for taking a lead role in asking the state to study the various risks involved.

The county passed a resolution requesting the governor, secretary of commerce and trade, and secretary of natural resources complete a joint report that looks at environmental, transportation, economic and regulatory issues pertaining to oil and gas drilling in the Tidewater region.

Essex passed the resolution March 11, followed by the town of Kilmarnock and Westmoreland County.

Two Essex supervisors, Sidney Johnson and Edwin “Bud” Smith Jr., attended Monday’s session, as did Commissioner of Revenue Tommy Blackwell. He said he wanted to know more about fracking as a landowner and a county official who will deal with the financial impacts.

Counties will get revenue from drilling, if resources are found in the area. And, as Shore officials have said, the activity will bring jobs and industry to “needy counties” like Essex and Caroline.

But as Pollard pointed out, officials also have to measure the economic impact, which ranges from damage to roads to higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases. Those issues, along with more reports of drunken and disorderly conduct, have been studied in Pennsylvania, where fracking has taken place, Pollard said.

“You can’t argue that there are valued positives, but do the rewards outweigh the risks?” Blackwell wondered, adding he plans to attend more informational meetings about the topic. “This issue is not going to go away anytime soon.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425

cdyson@freelancestar.com

 

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