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Water supply big fracking fear

State officials made it clear that protecting the Potomac aquifer—which supplies water to the Fredericksburg region and half of Virginia—will be their top priority, if any companies want to drill for natural gas in the region.

Maurice Jones, the state’s secretary of commerce and trade, and Molly Ward, Virginia’s secretary of natural resources, told more than 100 people at Rappahannock Community College in Warsaw Wednesday that they’re both committed to protecting the underground drinking water supply.

The state “is laser-focused on the care and future of the aquifer,” Ward said, “not just from drilling but also from its overuse. I’m not even kidding when I say it keeps people up at night.”

The state secretaries were part of a panel discussion hosted by the Northern Neck–Chesapeake Bay Region Partnership.

State officials, along with a representative from the gas industry and an environmental law firm, gathered to talk about the benefits, impacts and state and local regulation of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.

The process injects water and chemicals deep into the ground to loosen trapped gas. A Texas company has leased more than 84,000 acres in five counties south and east of Fredericksburg for possible drilling.

The audience was made up of elected officials, local government staff and residents from at least six counties in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula. It also included representatives of environmental and community groups, such as Friends of the Rappahannock and Friends of Westmoreland State Park.

Brentley Archer, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said he hoped people with different perspectives would “meet in the middle” to determine a course of action.

He pointed out that 10,000 wells have been drilled in Southwestern Virginia. All have been fracked without a single incident, he said, quoting the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.

Rick Parrish, senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, said he didn’t want to disparage the DMME but drilling that would be done locally “is a totally different animal” from the coalbed methane wells in Southwestern Virginia.

Wells in this region, known as the Taylorsville basin, would be deeper and require higher volumes of water and chemicals to fracture, he said.

“Virginia has almost no experience with that,” Parrish said. “We are really talking about a whole new ballgame.”

Repeatedly during the two-hour session, which was split between the panel discussion and questions from the audience, water bubbled to the surface as the main topic of discussion.

Holly Harman, a member of the Westmoreland County Wetlands Board, stressed how vital water is the region.

“You can’t go very far before you’re walking over a creek, a river, a stream, a pond, a lake,” she said. “It’s our heritage.”

She encouraged officials to get out of their “trance,” which has been induced by the gas industry, and protect the resources.

Chip Jones, the Westmoreland representative on the Northern Neck Soil and Water Conservation District, talked about the depletion of Potomac aquifer and the impact fracking would have on it. He cited reports that say, if current rate of usage continues, the aquifer’s demand will exceed its supply in 15 years.

That’s when Ward said, for the second time, that she wasn’t joking when she said she stays awake at night thinking about the water supply.

Panelists also stressed that protections are in place for the Taylorsville basin—and the coastal plain east of Interstate 95—that don’t exist elsewhere in Virginia. Companies interested in drilling in the Taylorsville have to go through a stricter permitting and regulatory process. Both DMME and the state’s Department of Environmental Quality have to review the applications. Drillers have to examine the impacts their actions would have on everything from air and water quality to wildlife.

“There’s no question the scrutiny of fracking is higher [in Taylorsville] than in any other part of the state,” Jones said.

Every panelist reminded the crowd that no companies have applied for permits to drill in the Taylorsville. Representatives of the Texas company said there’s no immediate plan for drilling.

Ward wonders if the current state administration will still be in office if, and when, a company applies for permission to drill in the Taylorsville. It would take up to 24 months for the state agencies to review the applications, and the current administration will be in office for another 3 years, she said.

Ward encouraged local officials to lobby their legislators to pursue the kind of permanent solutions Sen. Richard Stuart, R–Stafford County, sought this year.

First, he attempted to ban fracking in the Tidewater region, then amended his bill and asked for stricter regulations.

A House committee killed the bill in February, saying there already were enough rules in place.

Rosemary Mahan, a Westmoreland supervisor, thanked residents for attending the session to learn about fracking regulations and suggested elected officials should do the same.

“If your representative from your area is not here,” she said, “I suggest you call them and ask them why.”

Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425


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