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Fracking issue highlighted

Fracking for natural gas and oil is on the agenda of this week’s King George Board of Supervisors meeting on Feb. 4, (following our press time) with presentations expected from three representatives from the Virginia  Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME), including a state geologist.

The presentations are part of the board’s fact-finding mission for educating itself and county residents on dealing with any potential applications that might come forward to ask for drilling permits in the county.
Hydraulic fracturing – called fracking, or hydrofracking – is a process whereby chemicals and water are forced deep into the ground to fracture the shale rock strata to release natural gas.

The process involves drilling more than a mile down, then turning sideways and drilling further to place piping. Explosives are set off inside the pipe to punch holes into it to disperse the pressured chemicals and water solution.

This fracking process consumes large amounts of water, and the chemicals have been known to pollute aquifers either through the fracking process itself or afterwards by fracking waste fluid seeping from large holding ponds. Accidents, spills, leaks and fluid disposal have contaminated water in some Pennsylvania and West Virginia communities.

This week’s session on fracking, during a regular board meeting, follows a town hall held on the topic last week, organized by Dahlgren Supervisor Ruby Brabo with help by the Friends of the Dahlgren Railroad Heritage Trail. That took place on Jan. 29, at the UMW-Dahlgren.  

Former state Delegate Albert Pollard moderated the meeting, providing lots of pertinent information about fracking and about the Taylorsville Basin, which is a geological formation under this region being considered for potential drilling.

Other speakers included Pablo Cuevas, chairman of the Rockingham Board of Supervisors, and Rockingham County Deputy County Administrator Stephen King, along with legal insight provided by senior attorney Rick Parrish from the Southern Environmental Law Center.

The town hall drew about 130 people to hear about fracking issues, including Joe Grzeika, chairman of the King George governing body. Planning Commissioners Chris Cox and Bill Robie were also spotted separately in the audience.

GRZEIKA COMMENTS
Following last week’s forum, Grzeika told The Journal he attended as the board’s chairman at Brabo’s request and to also meet with the visiting officials from Rockingham County “to better understand their experience as it related to a proposed fracking well in their county.”

Grzeika praised Pollard’s moderating of the session, adding the various presentations were balanced and informative for those new to the fracking issue. Grzeika said he looked forward to the county’s continued fact-finding and to a county-wide forum on fracking to be scheduled in the future after more facts are gathered from various sources.  

He also said, “There are a number of pieces in play and as we work through our fact- finding we will also gain a better idea where the General Assembly is, and what potential legislative changes we may want to discuss with our state delegates prior to next year’s session.”

STATE LEGISLATION
Also, later last week, a bill initiated by state Senator Richard Stuart passed the senate, Senate Bill 48. If that legislation goes forward it could add another layer of environmental review to applications to the DMME for mining activities in this region including oil and gas drilling.

The state plays a primary role with permitting for oil and gas mining, with localities also having a secondary important role, depending in part on the strength of their zoning ordinances.

Grzeika also told The Journal he wanted to discuss with the board the possibility of asking the George Washington Regional Commission and the Northern Neck Planning District “to partner to work on a set of model ordinances that we regionally could use that would have some uniformity and provide a better approach to the protection of the aquifer and the regulations and controls for oil and gas wells in the region generally.”

POLLARD’S ADVICE
During the forum last week, Pollard noted several of the risks of fracking, including what he called, “the industrialization of a rural landscape,” the potential for pollution of the water supply by chemicals used in the fracking process, as well as a diminution of water quantity, with about six million gallons per day used per ‘frack.’ He also noted that noise is another by-product of the process, with loud compression stations running 24/7 as part of the process.

Pollard said mitigation of some of the risks can include strengthening local zoning ordinances regarding industrial noise, traffic, road damage, and setback requirements for well pads and processing from residences, schools, churches and other types of buildings.

He warned that truck traffic, associated with fracking, can be excessive, constant, and noisy, in addition to causing costly infrastructure damage by tearing up roads.

The truck traffic can be generated during all phases of the mining process, including by hauling in machinery and piping during construction, and hauling off sand and waste water fracking fluid at various points. In addition, there is the potential for a lot more truck traffic to haul in water, if water it is not taken directly from the aquifer under the industrialized site.

One argument being used by drilling companies in favor of mining is that it will bring jobs to a region. But Pollard countered that notion, saying that drilling companies bring in their own experienced work gangs to fill those jobs.

FUTURE TOWN MEETING
When Supervisors feel they have a handle on enough of the facts about drilling and fracking to be able to answer questions from the public, the board expects to hold one or more town meetings to do so.

That could be later, rather than sooner, with the legislation, as noted above, working its way through the state’s General Assembly.

In addition to a future town meeting to be set for a presentation, along with questions from the audience, all reporting to the board on the fracking issue is slated to take place during public meetings.  

COUNTY ORDINANCES
County attorney Eric Gregory reported in January on the county’s existing zoning ordinances, saying they address exploratory drilling for oil and/or natural gas by a required special exception permit in the A-1 and A-2 districts.

Special exception permits require two advertised public hearings, first one by the Planning Commission and the second by the Board of Supervisors in King George.

Gregory said the special exception permit requirements require site plans, ingress and egress plans, drill site plans, erosion and sediment control plans. They also require an environmental impact assessment and operation plan, which must first be filed with DMME and then also filed with a special exception permit application.

In King George, drill sites are currently limited to four acres, with no drill site within 500 feet of an occupied residence.

Gregory had noted some of what was repeated by Pollard and lawyers at last week’s forum. He had told the board it had the authority to impose additional other requirements if those were incorporated into the zoning ordinance to address noise, dust, traffic impacts, setbacks for drill sites from schools, occupied residences as already included, and churches.

Gregory had also cautioned that the existing zoning ordinance does not currently address compression stations, but only addresses drilling sites. That’s likely because the fracking technology has moved ahead of the county’s ordinance. Compression stations are more often utilized in natural gas drilling, with the county’s ordinance largely addressing exploratory oil drilling.

Gregory also had noted that regulatory rules are complex in terms of the potential zoning regulation possibilities and in regard to potential environmental impacts. He also said there may be other kinds of related issues in terms of the influx of residents brought in by drillers, including those having to do with temporary and/or transient residents and their impacts on such things as emergency services, law enforcement, schools, etc.

Supervisors agreed last month with Gregory’s suggestion that following their fact-finding, the county’s ordinance should be sent to the county Planning Commission after the board agrees to parameters it would want the Commission to address in regard to amendments to the ordinance.

Phyllis Cook

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