- Last Updated on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 09:57
- Published on Wednesday, 05 March 2014 09:57
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DEQ Water regulating measures spark council concerns over possible fracking in Montross
The old saying “Water and oil don’t mix”, is ringing true for members of the Montross Town Council, who are making that statement metaphorically with their concerns over the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) regulating water usage for localities and individuals, but not for the mining industry.
Council’s discussions on obtaining a water withdrawal permit sparked concerns of potential overuse and contamination from mining industries, who are exempt from not only water usage restrictions, but are also not regulated to the same degree as everyone else. The council met for their regular meeting on February 25, with Vice Mayor Joseph P. King presiding over the meeting in Mayor David O’Dell’s absence. O’Dell was out recovering from pain management surgery and was reported as doing well.
The issue of water restrictions came to the council last year, when everyone owning and operating a well in Eastern Virginia received a letter informing them that they may be under water withdrawal restrictions being imposed by the State.
The DEQ, through the State’s Water Control Board, regulates water resources and water pollution in Virginia. The DEQ designates areas for water control if it finds there is a risk of depletion, competition between wells, groundwater being overused or at the risk of contamination.
The DEQ states that groundwater levels in the eastern portion of Virginia are declining or are expected to decline excessively. So to regulate water use, the DEQ has expanded their area of Ground Water Management Area (GWMA).
There are 40 counties in the Eastern Virginia Groundwater Management Area, including Stafford, Spotsylvania, Caroline, Hanover, Henrico, Chesterfield, Hopewell, Prince George, Sussex and Southampton Counties, and all counties to the East which encompass the Northern Neck. The Eastern Shore and Accomack and Northampton Counties comprise their own GWMA.
Any individual, business or locality operating a well that pulls more than 300,000 gallons of groundwater per month within the GWMA, must now obtain a permit and adhere to strict guidelines set up by the DEQ.
The DEQ states that establishing a groundwater management area protects existing users from new or expanding withdrawals [of water], assures continued resources viability into the future and manages the resource comprehensively.
However, several council members agreed with Councilman Robert Zimmerman that the DEQ cannot replace the water with the permit fees, but only use them to fund research into water usage and enforcing restrictions.
Existing well users can be grandfathered in by applying for a permit based on historic use for the first 10-year permit term. The application must be completed and reviewed by DEQ by June 30, or the town will pay a hefty price. A grandfathered permit, based on historical use, will cost the town $1,200. However, if the application is not submitted on time, the town would have to pay $6,000.
Despite the lower-cost application fee, Town Manager Brenda Reamy told the council that water bills would likely require an increase in order to pay the permit fee.
Reamy also told the council that the town has the option to send the application in early as a draft for review, in order to catch any mistakes so they could then be corrected. Reamy said she has been working on the permit process, mapping has been completed and approved by DEQ, well permits within the town have been located, and the next step is to complete the application.
Reamy said the town uses between 50 and 55 thousand gallons per day, well above the 300,000-gallon criteria. She advised that the town watches the levels very closely each month for high usage, making a conscious effort to find a reason why. This will prove particularly useful, since the DEQ will require the town to stay within its average usage. The historical usage application will limit the daily water supply to at or below the highest average usage in the town’s history of water use.
Residents and business owners in the rural areas of the GWMA should have already received a letter from DEQ, and are subject to the same rules if their usage exceeds 300,000 gallons of water per month.
Reamy reported that at a recent seminar, she posed the question to DEQ, “How would these restrictions affect commitments the town has made?” The town is worried that construction permits for work that has not yet been started may affect the water usage and cause the town to go over its limit before the 10 years are up. Reamy did not get a definitive answer from DEQ.
Reamy also posed the issue of firefighting usage and told the DEQ that Montross has 28 fire hydrants and provides protection for more than just the Town of Montross. Officials replied that no one had ever asked that question and suggested sending a note when usage limits are exceeded.
The permit does not give a yearly use; it is based on an average. If less water is used, then the town’s limit will decrease. Under this mandate, new wells would cost $6,000 each, just for the drilling. Reamy admits that she is not sure what restrictions would be put on the town.
The DEQ states that all permits may include any of the following restrictions or conditions: specific limits on withdrawal amounts; required geophysical investigations; required installation of water meters; reporting of withdrawal and water quality data; development of a water conservation and management plan; development of a mitigation plan; and required installation of monitored wells.
The council had bigger concerns over the regulated water supplies, due to recent news that a large number of Westmoreland County’s privately owned properties are under lease to energy companies to allow drilling for natural gas on their land in the near future.
The method recently being used to extract the natural gas is called Hydraulic Fracturing, nicknamed “fracking”, and it has come under fire by many critics.
The council had a discussion on the matter of fracking and its desire to send a message (as a council) to the Governor. Councilman Terry Cosgrove has taken a particular interest in helping to educate the council on the methods of fracking. Cosgrove’s position is that he does not want to get into a debate over whether the methods of extraction are safe or not. However, he does want the council to ask the Governor to halt the fracking process within the state of Virginia until more research on the longterm consequences of fracking on a locality’s infrastructure can be done. Cosgrove focused on two consequences of fracking; the constant 24/7 traffic of large tankers hauling chemicals and water for the process and hauling out of natural gas, as well as the usage of water during the process.
Cosgrove stated that research into the process shows that an average of 800,000 gallons of water would be used on a single well. Fracking also requires drilling more wells than conventional oil or gas drilling.
The DEQ outlines exclusions for well permits. State law exempts water extraction limits in any type of operation by companies mining for energy sources (State Code 9VAC25-610-50). Exclusions named on the list of exemptions: “withdrawals coincident with exploration for and extraction of coal, or activities associated with coal mining regulated by the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy”; and “withdrawals coincident with the exploration for or production of oil, gas or other minerals other than coal, unless such withdrawal adversely impacts aquifer quantity or quality of other groundwater users within a groundwater management area”.
Cosgrove is concerned that the water usage will seriously interfere with residential usage by depleting the local water sources. Cosgrove is also concerned about long-term effects of contaminated water, which he believes (after attending seminars on fracking in the area) is disposed of in evaporation tanks on site.
However, research on the subject states that the contaminated water is pushed deep underground and sealed off.
Cosgrove reasons that the consequences resulting from methods of contaminated water disposal have not been studied on a long-term basis and leaves surrounding water supplies vulnerable to contamination.