Fracking The Headwaters Of The Potomac? Bad Idea.

This is a guest post by JD Willoughby. JD has worked to protect and restore natural resources for more than 20 years in the Chesapeake Bay. Now located in Anchorage, AK, she continues her work in the natural resources field and enjoys exploring the last frontier.

Jackson River, VA flows into the James River | © James River Association

Jackson River, VA flows through the George Washington National Forest and forms the James River headwaters | © James River Association

The George Washington National Forest (GWNF) lies directly on top of Marcellus shale and also in the headwaters for the Potomac and James rivers. In 2011, the Forest Service submitted a draft plan for public review that left oil and gas companies out of the picture as far as fracking goes. With the outcry from the companies, GWNF began reworking the plan. However, it is still unclear if fracking will be allowed in the Forest or not. The Forest Service has not come to a decision and does not have a release date for the final plan yet, according to Ken Landgraf, natural resources group staff officer of GWNF.

According to The State of Our Water: Managing and Protecting the Drinking Water Resources of the George Washington National Forest [PDF] report by Wild Virginia, the headwaters of the combined James and Potomac rivers in GWNF support about four million people. With some of its headwaters in GWNF, the Potomac watershed’s residents, including all members of Congress in the D.C. area who depend on it for water supply, plus Richmond and other cities that rely on the James, could be affected if fracking is allowed. In September 2013, DC Water General Manager George Hawkins submitted a letter to Secretary Thomas Vilsack stating, “It is a challenge to know what exactly the risk may be to our water supply and what steps may be necessary to address those challenges for the health and safety of our customers.”

If the Forest allows horizontal drilling on federal land, according to Landgraf, the draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) assumed that a horizontal drilling well pad would occupy 5.74 acres and need two miles of road for access. “The amount of disturbance (from developing federal gas resources) ranged from zero to 1,408 acres depending on the alternative,” said Landgraf. Those acres would be logged, which, in addition to the fracking and drilling itself, could significantly degrade water quality.

When asked if there are contingency plans in place if the drilling on federal lands and/or fracking contaminates the aquifers or surface waters, Landgraf explained that there are two steps in any gas development. “The first is a decision on what lands, if any, are available for gas leasing. That is the decision we are making now. If lands are made available and the lease owner decides to drill for gas, they must apply for the permit to drill.” Landgraf further explained that another environmental analysis would be completed based on the specific plan for drilling, maintainence, and reclamation.

One hitch in the fracking issue is that mineral rights in GWNF are held by private owners in about 16 percent of the Forest. The decision of whether to allow federal gas leases does not apply to those people. They can develop their mineral rights as they choose.

The fracking and drilling issue on GWNF lands has no definite timeline. But with the logging and potential for aquifer and surface water contamination, it is important we continue to monitor the issue as it develops.

One Response to “Fracking The Headwaters Of The Potomac? Bad Idea.”

Cliff Dweller

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American Institute of Chemical Engineers