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Fracking issues on the agenda

Drilling for natural gas and oil is being discussed by the King George Board of Supervisors, with one report last week and more on the way to get the governing body up to speed on just what authority is provided under state law to regulate gas and oil drillers, should permit applications be received for any for drilling in the county.

The next meeting of the board is scheduled on Feb. 4, when a presentation is expected from a representative from the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy (DMME).

That meeting will be held at the King George Citizens Center, located on Route 3 (Kings Hwy), across from the Food Lion shopping center. The suggestion to move the meeting to a location to accommodate more audience seating was suggested by Supervisor Cedell Brooks.
It is a regularly scheduled business meeting, with the Service Authority and Wireless Authority also meeting at that location, all scheduled for 6 p.m.

All reporting to the board on the drilling issue is slated to take place during public meetings, with one or more town hall-style meetings to be held by the board after a lot more is known, including the effects of any new legislation by the General Assembly that gets through the legislative state bodies and signed into law.

Late last year, Supervisors had directed county attorney Eric Gregory to review the county ordinances and research state law and report back. Gregory’s report had been expected at a board meeting on Jan. 21, which took place last week on Jan. 23, having been postponed a couple of days due to a forecast for heavy snow.

FRACKING, DRILLING, EXTRACTION
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. This fracking process consumes large amounts of water, and the chemicals have been known to pollute aquifers.
But that is only one method of extraction for natural gas, with other names for different extraction processes, some using less water, but all appearing to use chemicals.
King George’s entire water supply is dependent on wells fed from underground aquifers.
Localities derive their specific authorities to take action from the Code of Virginia. And when it comes to mining, there are also two main agencies involved in regulation at the state level. Those are DMME and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).
Board Chairman Joe Grzeika responded to concerns raised by four residents early in the meeting during public comment time. One person intimated that Supervisors might be swayed by “financial aspects” inferring drilling could increase county revenues.
Grzeika quashed those fears, noting the county gets no revenue from the mining currently ongoing in the county for sand and gravel extraction.
Actually, an argument being used by drilling companies is that mining will bring jobs to a region. But that notion has been countered by the argument that drilling companies also bring in experienced workers to fill those jobs. Gregory touched on that aspect in his report, as detailed below.
But prior to Gregory’s report, Grzeika said, “We’re going to hear from our state agencies and work with our state delegation because the General Assembly really holds the keys to what’s going to happen from the whole issue.”
He added, “We’re all concerned about that aquifer. Unfortunately, that aquifer doesn’t know boundaries. So, if in fact, we stopped any fracking in King George, that may not solve any problem if they do it in another adjacent county. Because it would still affect the aquifer and that’s the water we all drink, and that’s the primary concern.”

Grzeika added, “We plan to get that information, and then we’re going to hold a town meeting for some of the same presentations again, and a collection of the data that we get to take input. That’s a process. You asked us to do, and we’re doing it, but it takes time, and it won’t happen tomorrow. So let us go through the process, and we’re doing it all in public.”

STATE LEGISLATION & REGULATION
Gregory noted a couple of bills introduced in the General Assembly, saying those were in flux. One would basically put a moratorium on drilling from Virginia Beach up through King George. Whether such far-reaching or similar legislation is successfully passed, Gregory noted that at least one legislator – state Sen. Richard Stuart - hopes to at least attempt a compromise with the drilling companies that could task DEQ with regulating all oil and gas drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the Taylorsville Basin, which is under the entire area and may contain the precious fossil fuels.

Gregory said he would monitor the bills and stay in touch with state legislators on the issue to keep the board informed.

COUNTY ORDINANCES
In the meantime, Gregory reported that the county’s existing zoning ordinance addresses exploratory drilling for oil and/or natural gas by a required special exception permit in the A-1 and A-2 districts.

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

At this point, no application has been made in King George for gas or oil drilling.

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.

Drill sites are limited to four acres, with no drill site within 500 feet of an occupied residence.

Gregory said, “The board would have authority to impose additional other requirements if it were incorporated into the zoning ordinance to address noise, dust, traffic impacts, setbacks for drill sites from schools, occupied residences as already included, churches.”

He added, “Our zoning ordinance does not presently address compression stations. It only addresses drilling sites. Compression stations are not necessarily utilized in oil drilling, but in natural gas drilling, they have these compression stations, which it’s my understanding, run 24/7. And they’re fairly loud, and they are adjacent to, but not always next to the drilling stations. And there’re also pipelines that are also attached to all these facilities, as well.”

Gregory noted that the regulatory rules are complex, both in terms of the potential zoning regulation possibilities and the potential environmental impacts, with all kinds of other issues in terms of influx of residents – temporary residents, transient residents – impacts on emergency services, schools, those kinds of things.

He added, “It’s quite an issue that needs a good deal of development and study and consideration.” He also said the county’s current ordinance only addresses exploratory drilling, and does not specifically or expressly address production drilling. He added, “And under state code, it may be a distinction without a difference.”

Supervisors agreed with Gregory’s suggestion that at some point, the county’s ordinance should be sent to the county Planning Commission, but only after the board agrees to what the parameters it would want the Commission to address, in regard to amendments to the ordinance.  

Supervisor Dale Sisson suggested that take place after they see whether any legislation on the issue results from the General Assembly. He said, “What I’m hearing is that we still have to nail down what we can and can’t do and how the state code drives those options.”

Supervisor Ruby Brabo agreed to hold off on sending the issue to the Planning Commission, with more questions yet to be answered, such as whether the number of well pad sites can be restricted, and about comprehensive environmental study requirements.

Grzeika stated, “We’re going to cross our ‘t’s and dot our ‘i’s, so whatever we do is legally sound, and we can be upheld. Because at the end of the day, we don’t want to be spending a lot of your money that we end up losing. We’re going to continue this process. So everyone knows, again, we’re going to get the information, you’re going to hear it. And we’re going to present it again at a town meeting that will be a bigger venue.”

He added, “But if you don’t make that meeting (on Feb.4), it won’t be the end of the world and won’t be the only time you get to hear it.”

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