Thursday, February 6, 2014

Don't Frack the Potomac Watershed

The 1.1 million-acre George Washington National Forest sits on the eastern portion of the Marcellus shale formation. Now, as reported in the L.A. Times and Washington Post, the U.S. Forest Service is deciding whether to open up the national forest to oil and gas leases allowing hydraulic fracking at the source of the Potomac River, the lifeblood of our region. The Forest Service proposes to revise the 1993 Land and Resource Management Plan for the Forest. The Draft Environmental Impact Statement on file, describes seven alternatives and the Forest Service has identified Alternative G as the Agency’s Preferred Alternative. This alternative as can be seen in the chart below would allow further development of the oil and gas resources in the Forest. This should not happen at this time.
from US Forest Service
The Potomac is the major source of drinking water for more than 4 million people, and the headlands and watershed are within the eastern edge of the forest along the edge of the Marcellus shale formation. The entire Chesapeake Bay region is under a mandated pollution diet from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to restore the Chesapeake Bay. Meanwhile, the U.S. Forest Service is considering allowing activities that could increase sediment runoff and potentially release pollution to the Potomac River.

The Washington Aqueduct Division of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Fairfax County Water Authority and the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission furnish about 95% of the metropolitan region's water from the Potomac River. For more than two centuries the waters of the Potomac seemed unlimited, but regional growth, pollution and drought proved that was not true. Congress created the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin, ICPRB, to address the pollution of the river, but now their primary job is to manage the allocation of the Potomac’s Waters especially in times of drought. The idea of diverting millions of gallons of water to be used in hydrofracking and even the smallest risk of pollution to the river from spills and leaks is an unacceptable risk to the water supply for the region.

Drilling requires large amounts of water to create a circulating mud that cools the bit and carries the rock cuttings out of the borehole. After drilling, the shale formation is then stimulated by hydro fracking, using 2-5 million gallons of water mixed with chemicals. For gas to flow out of the shale, all of the water not absorbed by the formation during fracking must be recovered and disposed of. Though less than 0.5% by volume, the proprietary chemicals used in fracking represent 15,000 gallons of unknown chemical compostion in the waste water recovered from the typical hydro fracking job. The chemicals serve to increases the viscosity of the water to a gel-like consistency so that it can carry the propping agent (typically sand) into the fractures to hold them open so that the gas can flow.

The oil and gas industry has failed to determine proper methods for the safe disposal of the large quantities of this fracking fluid that may also contain contaminants from the geological formation including brines, heavy metals, radionuclides and organic contaminants. This must be accomplished before even considering expanding fracking into important watersheds. In addition, the impact of so much waste water on our water resources must be monitored and addressed.The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is currently engaged in a review of hydraulic fracking and that should be completed before fracking is further expanded into ecologically sensitive areas.

While geologists and engineers believe that in hydraulic fracturing the intervening layers of rock prevent a fissure from extending into the water table, they base this on the “typical” geology where there are thousands of feet between the water table and the fracking location and does not account for any potential impacts from human error or carelessness or on the hydraulic balance in a watershed. The problems seen in drinking water wells near hydro fracking jobs have typically occurred when fracking fluid seeps into drinking water wells through improperly sealed or abandoned drilling wells and from accidental release or improper storage of recovered fracking fluid.

The oil and gas industry has outpaced regulators and knowledge of the consequences from forcing oil and gas from the earth. It is essential to determine the vertical and horizontal separation that is necessary to protect the drinking water aquifers and watersheds from the environmental impacts from fracking before watersheds are damaged or destroyed or the U. S. Forest Service allows vastly expanded development of oil and gas resources in the National Forests. The oil and gas will still be in the ground when we have more knowledge, then fracking can be expanded with increased oversight to ensure that this separation is maintained, improved well-design requirements are developed and ensure their consistent implementation and require the appropriate handling, treatment and recycling of drilling waste water.

The deep well injection commonly used in Texas to dispose of fracking water may have consequences beyond small earthquakes and is not appropriate in all geologies. Sewage treatment plants are designed to separate solids and use bacteria to treat biological waste. They are not equipped to remove or neutralize the contaminants in used hydro fracking fluid. In 2009 and 2010, public sewage treatment plants in Pennsylvania directly upstream from drinking-water intake facilities accepted wastewater that contained radionuclides at levels hundred even thousands of times the drinking-water standard despite the fact that these plants (and most sewage plants) were exempt from monitoring for radiation. Local regulators and gas producers believed the waste was not a threat because it would be diluted by treatment in the sewage treatment plants or the river itself, without sampling to verify this. They guessed at the environmental impact and safety of the public drinking water supply. Water resources are primary to life, energy resources are secondary.

Finally, care must be taken to avoid degradation of watersheds and streams from the equipment, machinery and operation of the oil and gas industry as large quantities of heavy equipment and supplies are moved on rural roads and placed on concrete pads changing the runoff quantity, velocity and quality while exposing the watershed to potential sources of hydrocarbon contamination. The watersheds that supply the water that is the life of our region must be protected first and foremost. Over the years there have been reports from several states noting contamination of drinking water wells in association with fracking, though no definitive proof because of lack of adequate testing and difficulties in understanding groundwater, the full extent to which hydro fracking fluids have contaminated or might in the future contaminate groundwater is unknown. However, many cases of associated contamination have been confirmed.

The Potomac River is an irreplaceable source of drinking water for millions of people and should be protected. All of the Potomac River watershed needs to be designated by Congress as withdrawn from availability for oil and gas leasing until such time that we know how to ensure with certainty the availability and purity of the Potomac.

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