Local conservationist expresses concerns over fracking

Tuesday’s decision by the U.S. Forest Service to allow hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a small portion of the George Washington National Forest drew praise from environmentalists and energy advocates alike.

The final compromise, as announced Tuesday, allows for fracking in portions of the forest that have been leased for the purposes of extracting minerals and gases. Those areas, according to reports, total 167,000 acres with existing private mineral rights and another 10,000 acres already leased to oil and gas firms.

“That seems like a good compromise,” said Matt Kowalski, senior conservation specialist with the Lord Fairfax Soil and Water Conservation District.

Before working in Strasburg, Kowalski was part of a team for the Pennsylvania Department of Natural Resources that monitored the impact of fracking in forests.

“A lot of times, when people think about a national forest, they think that it’s protected, [that] the federal government owns and maintains that,” Kowalski said, adding “the minerals beneath that may not be owned by the national forest.”

Although the district itself has not yet taken an official stance on the decision, Kowalski expressed a few personal concerns regarding the impact fracking might have on local environments.

“My concerns as a conservation specialist are to take care of the surface water, groundwater and soil for the district,” he said.

According to Kowalski, there are a lot of elements in the environment — especially the valley’s water supply — that could be affected by fracking.

“We’re talking about going into waters [and] a well-managed, intact forest and potentially disturbing that in ways we don’t know,” Kowalski said.

In addition, Kowalski added, “I’m skeptical that, long-term, it’s going to be impact-free … to the groundwater, at least.”

According to Kowalski, there is a lot of interface between “surface water and that groundwater zone, where surface water goes into the ground and recharges aquifers.”

In turn, those aquifers come into contact with bodies of water such as the Shenandoah River. According to Kowalski, the river as well as surface water entities provide many local Shenandoah County towns, farms and homes with drinking water.

One major area of personal concern for Kowalski includes how wellbores — the holes that are drilled to achieve the fracturing — are protected from the surrounding environment.

“If you are going to seal [that wellbore] with concrete … concrete is water-soluble, so how long is it going to last?

” … If this bore becomes disturbed because it is water-soluble, maybe some of those chemicals can work their back up into [rock] layers that were previously undisturbed.”

Indeed, one of the biggest concerns fracking critics have had over the years is its potential impact to drinking water supplies. Research into this area seems to be divided at the moment.

According to a study by a team of scientists at Duke University published in Sept. 9, 2014 (http://tinyurl.com/owpmbv9), water contamination in Texas and Pennsylvania had more to do with leaky well shafts than the actual fracking.

A study by researchers at Cornell University in 2012 discovered “severe changes in health” for humans and animals located near 24 sites with gas wells (http://tinyurl.com/8yrnndl).

The authors of the Cornell study did note that a many of these cases were due to “unintended leaks.” At the same time, there were reports of dogs that became ill because of discarded wastewater.

There is also the ongoing study by the Environmental Protection Agency that is examining the impacts of fracking in several states across the country.

Kowalski would like to see more research and data regarding fracking. “There isn’t enough data to say for sure whether or not [fracking in] the Marcellus shale is going impact groundwater or not,” Kowalski said.

In addition, Kowalski even stressed the importance of building something such as an environmentally sound roadway. “You can build a road that increases sedimentation and runoff,” he said.

Despite his concerns, Kowalski expressed that he is happy that the National Forest Service is opening up the George Washington National Forest “on a limited basis.”

At the same time, Kowalski hopes that companies look at Best Management Practices as well as the impact to the environment when it comes to hydraulic fracturing.

“If they are going to extract the natural gas, I would encourage that activity to be done in as environmentally sound manner as possible,” Kowalski said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Green at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or kgreen@nvdaily.com