Hydraulic fracturing, or “fracking” injects pressurized liquids into the earth to break apart shale rock formations and release trapped oil or natural gas. Fracking uses millions of gallons of water mixed with “proprietary” toxic chemicals that are injected deep underground through wells to break up shale and release trapped gas. The waste water from that process is now toxic waste that has to be disposed of. It is either injected back underground, dumped into open pits, or placed in temporary storage tanks on-site until it can be shipped elsewhere. There are virtually no waste water treatment plants that can clean the water and make it safe for release back into the environment. Fracking is exempt from both the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts, thanks to the so-called “Halliburton Loophole” so there is no accountability for poisoning the land, water, or air.
This past year has seen some encouraging and not-so-encouraging developments on fracking in the Virginia portion of the Taylorsville Basin. That Basin spans King George, Caroline, Westmoreland, and Essex Counties in Virginia, and all of those Counties are under attack from the industry. Over 84,000 acres in those Counties are under lease contracts for fracking.
Attorney General (AG) Herring issued an opinion stating that Counties were allowed by State law to use Zoning Regulations to limit where this heavy industry could occur in their county, contravening the prior guidance from then AG Cuccinelli. The Virginia legislature passed laws stating that cities, counties, and towns can enact local land-use laws as they see fit.
The King George (KG) Board of Supervisors (BOS) unanimously adopted amendments to the county’s Comprehensive Plan and Zoning ordinance to limit fracking. In September 2015, the KG BOS held a Public Hearing attended by many residents, environmental activists including the Sierra Club, Southern Environmental Law Center, and Friends of the Rappahannock, as well as industry lawyers. It was clear that residents and environmentalists were against allowing fracking in KG, with most calling for an outright ban, while the industry lawyers threatened law suits if the BOS took any action. No vote was taken that day on Ms. Ruby Brabo’s motions to revise the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations.
But 2016 would prove to be different. On August 15th, 2016, the KG BOS, under the leadership of the now Board Chair, Ms. Brabo, held another Public Hearing. Again, residents and environmentalists spoke out against fracking, while 5 industry lawyers and lobbyists threatened law suits. The rationale for the threats ranged from violating state law (the so-called “Dillon Rule” which says that local governments cannot enact laws that override state statutes), to environmentalist “fear mongering”, to believing in the “science” that says fracking is safe. One attorney said he was afraid that the KG ordinance would become the model for other Counties, and so they had to sue.
The changes will limit fracking to only 9% of the county, an increase from the 4% previously allowed in September 2015, largely attributable to a reduction in the drilling site setback footage that protected residences, roads, sensitive environmental locations, and other locations.
Further south, in Westmoreland County, the Planning Commission is considering similar changes to their Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations. They have been diligently researching fracking processes, Virginia laws and regulations, and best practices in other localities. The Planning Commission also saw residents, environmentalists (including the Sierra Club), and industry lobbyists attend their meetings and speak out. Most residents and environmentalists that attended the July 2016 hearing wanted an outright ban.
The Planning Commission is charged with making recommendations to the BOS regarding what to do about fracking in their County. They are currently taking a similar approach to that of King George, revising the Comprehensive Plan and Zoning Regulations, rather than implementing an outright ban.
Essex County has seen some recent activity in that “DontFracTheRapp”, a previously unknown and somewhat mysterious group, has pointed out that several conservation easements would allow fracking in three environmentally-sensitive plots on the Rappahannock River. The easements are already in place, but the group is requesting that people send post cards to the Governor and ask that the retained mineral rights be voluntarily surrendered.
The Taylorsville Basin covers a wide expanse of east-central Virginia, a land of rural and historic character that is dependent on aquifers for drinking water. Implementing fracking on the proposed scale will turn a rural county into a 24×7 heavy industrial site, with noise, water, land, and air pollution that is damaging to the health of residents. The promise of local jobs is patently untrue, as the industry hires laborers with that specific experience from previous jobs in Western states.
Fracking is an environmental scourge that contributes to global warming in all stages of production. Methane leaks into the air during drilling, is burned (“flared”) along with other toxins at the site when there is too much to capture, leaks in transit and when it arrives at the incinerator, and puts copious amounts of CO2 into the atmosphere when it is finally burned. The entire life cycle of this gas is at least as bad for climate change as burning coal. It brings up radioactive materials from thousands of feet below the surface, causing a disposal problem – it is usually buried in unlined holes at the site, where it can be disturbed by wildlife, residents, and rain.
If you live in any of the Counties where fracking is proposed, it would be a good idea to contact your BOS and tell them to just say no. The land, air, and water, along with your own health, depends upon you taking action.