By Jeb Inge
REDDISH KNOB -- Its proponents hail it as an economic boon. Opponents say it could contaminate your water supply. It's in the news with such voracity that even if you can't recite statistics, you feel like an expert on the subject.
Matt Damon even made a movie about it.
Now, hydraulic fracturing, most commonly known as fracking, may get the green light to begin operations in Virginia's George Washington National Forest, to the consternation of organizations dedicated to fighting its spread.
Members of the Southern Environmental Law Center, Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, and Shenandoah Valley Network conducted a media tour of the national forest on Thursday to highlight the strengths and weaknesses of the forest as well as the threats of gas drilling.
In discussing the region's watersheds, Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, warned that in excess of 4.75 million people stand in threat of what fracking would do to their water supply.
"We know fracking fluid has numerous chemicals with toxic chemicals in it. That creates a risk that those can flow into those streams," she said.
The green light, or lack thereof, to allow fracking will hinge on a management plan currently being written by the U.S. Forrest Service. That plan, expected to be released in June, will outline all allowable activity on the more than one million acres of forest land, and will dictate forest policy for at least the next decade.
The forest has become part of the national drilling issue not because of its sweeping vista and lush forests, but for the gas that exists in the rock buried hundreds of feet below the surface -- the Marcellus Shale.
The Marcellus Shale stretches from southern New York to eastern Kentucky. It's southeasternmost border lies a few miles west of Interstate 81 in the Shenandoah Valley.
Drilling for gas in Marcellus Shale requires the use of a drilling method called hydraulic fracturing -- a practice during which drills shoot highly pressurized water mixed with sand and chemicals into a well, and that in turn releases natural gas from the earth.
Fracking is not the same process as vertical drilling, in which a well is drilled to the gas, which is then extracted. Gas wells have been in use since gas and oil were discovered in Titusville, Pa., in the 19th century. Vertical drilling has since become a billion-dollar industry in southwestern Virginia.
That industry has boomed in the last few years with the discovery of a massive deposit of natural gas under the Marcellus Shale rock formation. In 2010, hydraulic fracturing was being used in 60 percent of all new oil and gas wells around the world, according to a 2012 study published in Society of Petroleum Engineers.
The Environmental Protection Agency addressed the issue of fracking's effect on a region's water supply in 2004, when a study found that the process of hydraulic fracking did not threaten drinking water. The agency did not conduct water tests during the study.
Then in December 2011, the EPA announced the first link between underground water pollution with fracking when contaminants caused by gas drilling were found in central Wyoming. The findings are part of a major study still being prepared by the EPA.
Whether there is an undeniable link between horizontal drilling and water pollution remains a contentious issue. But the groups hoping to keep fracking out of George Washington National Forest believe that particular forest would carry unique repercussions should water become contaminated.
The George Washington National Forest is a major contributor to two watersheds: those of the James and Potomac rivers, which serve the Richmond and Washington, D.C. areas respectively. Both of those rivers also are major contributors to the Chesapeake Bay ecological system.
George Washington National Forest is the largest federal block of land in these watersheds.
Horizontal drilling operations, by their definition, create a large amount of wastewater, Francisco said, and in Virginia, it is legal to dispose of wastewater by applying it directly to the land.
"That wastewater has chemicals in it, and can also have traces of heavy metals or even naturally occurring radioactive materials underground," she explained.
A 2011 study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Science found that levels of flammable gas in drinking water increased to "dangerous levels" when the water supply was close to natural gas wells. The report also found that the gas detected in the water supply was the same being extracted through fracking.
The Shenandoah County Board of Supervisors in 2010 unanimously passed a resolution urging the Forrest Service to "aggressively protect drinking water resources" by prohibiting fracking in the George Washington National Forrest.
Both the Interstate Commission on the Potomac River Basin and the U.S. Department of the Army have publicly called for alternatives to the use of fracking in the forest.
Should the Forest Service management plan allow for fracking, George Washington would not be the first national forest to host operations. As of 2011, there were 15 gas wells either producing, or are ready to begin producing, natural gas in Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia.
Monongahela has become the first substantive test case for the long-term effects of gas drilling on federal land.
A 2011 report conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture studied the effects of natural gas drilling in Monongahela's Fernow Experimental Forest. The report found the greatest impact in the forest was done to roads, which suffered under drilling trucks, and to trees, a large number of which were killed by a planned release of wastewater generated by the gas mining operation.
For Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, the fact that drilling is done elsewhere, such as in the Monongahela, is itself a reason for a ban on fracking in the Virginia forest.
"It makes a lot of sense to not drill this particular area -- because it's so special and unique -- when there's other areas that have a long history of oil and gas development going on," she said.
Lynn Cameron, co-chair with the Friends of Shenandoah Mountain, lauds the natural strengths of the forest, saying that many of those strengths would suffer should the park allow gas development.
Speaking near a lake in the national forest Thursday, the retired librarian with James Madison University explained the diverse role that waterways play in the national forest, citing their use as recreational tools, providers of water and as habitats for a number of species.
"Local fisherman tell me that the cold water streams on Shenandoah Mountain are some of the cleanest streams in the region and some of the best," she said.
"We [Friends of Shenandoah Mountain] think the values we enjoy from this area now would not be compatible with fracking," she said.
"You cant imagine coming out here to see birds or look at wildflowers and all of that is going on," she said.
"This is a prime recreation area, and hydrofracking seems incompatible with what we have here."
Calls to the following were not returned by deadline Friday evening: Range Resources, the U.S. Forest Service, and the Environmental Protection Agency.
Contact Region Editor Jeb Inge at 540-465-5137 ext. 186, or firstname.lastname@example.org