State protections questioned as industry-funded review gets underway
ABINGDON, Virginia – Local residents and community activists joined environmental and social justice groups to call for a comprehensive study and review of state oil and gas drilling standards, including regulations governing fracking, on Monday during a press conference led by Virginia Organizing and the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter. The press conference was held in response to the State Review of Oil and Natural Gas Environmental Regulations, Inc. – also known as Stronger – panel’s meetings on Virginia’s standards, which they claim are inadequate to protect public health and safety.
The groups stressed that, due to the state’s weak standards, the risks are too great at present for new forms of fracking to occur safely, and that a comprehensive review must take place before allowing permits for new forms of fracking to be issued. The Stronger review, the groups argued, is too limited to adequately protect Virginians. Fracking has led to serious harm to human and animal health as well as contamination of air and water in other states.
“The Stronger process and the DMME’s partial review of state regulations are both inadequate to protect Virginians’ from the dangers of fracking,” Corrina Beall, Legislative and Political Director of the Sierra Club Virginia Chapter, said. “We need a comprehensive review and significant revisions to our standards to ensure public health and safety. No new permits should be issued until this has taken place.”
The Stronger process is not a statutorily binding one, and will merely be reviewing and updating a previous review conducted twelve years ago, in 2004.
“The opportunity for a comprehensive review, which allows all interested parties to participate, was during the regulatory advisory process,” Ruby Brabo, At-Large Supervisor for King George County, said. “It is most unfortunate that the Department of Mines Minerals and Energy did not allow a comprehensive review of the regulations to take place at that time. It is imperative that all interested parties be able to trust the process and feel their voices are represented and their concerns are heard. I am thankful that local government has been afforded a seat at the table but I do empathize with those who do not feel they have a representative participating in the discussion.”
Several localities including Washington, Westmoreland and King George counties have attempted to address concerns about fracking themselves, due to weak state standards that they fear will not protect their residents. The Department of Mines Minerals and Energy has conducted a partial review of Virginia’s regulations, with some changes expected later this year.
Environmental groups have pointed out serious shortcomings with the partial review and called for a comprehensive review of risks to public health and the environment, similar to reviews previously conducted in Maryland and New York. Some of these shortcomings include the use of open air fracking waste storage pits, the areas allowed for disposal of fracking wastewater and a failure to prohibit drilling through drinking aquifers used for drinking water.
“Many of the most serious risks of fracking are to human health,” Bill Johnson, Conservation Chair, Rappahannock Group of the Sierra Club, said. “Someone with public health expertise should be reviewing Virginia’s regulations. A more thorough review should be conducted, and should rely on public health professionals with expertise in the health issues associated with shale gas fracking operations.”
Stronger, Inc. is funded through grants from organizations including the American Petroleum Institute and the Interstate Oil and Gas Compact Commission. Stronger is reviewing the Commonwealth’s drilling regulations for four days, beginning today, at the request of the DMME.
“We can’t trust the oil and gas drillers to regulate themselves,”Karen Shaffer, a local Virginia Organizing Chapter member, said. “It is essential for Virginia’s regulations to reflect the latest scientific and medical research results revealing the risks to human health by modern fracking. I am a resident of Washington County, and I want our state’s regulations to be thoroughly reviewed and updated before any new permits are considered.”
Gas companies are eyeing opportunities for fracking in at least two areas of Virginia: Marcellus Shale deposits in the western part of the state, and the Taylorsville Basin in the Fredericksburg area stretching south, east of Interstate 95. While no permits for fracking have been granted yet in the Taylorsville Basin region, more than 80,000 acres have been leased with the intent to frack. New, riskier fracking techniques seen in other states would be new to Virginia. Environmental advocates and community leaders have pointed to existing state standards to show Virginia is not prepared, and have called for a comprehensive study of the public health and environmental risks of fracking and a full review of existing regulations.
The state Department of Mines Minerals and Energy (DMME) started a process to revise Virginia’s fracking standards in late 2013. However, in conducting the review of its standards, DMME chose to focus on only a handful of issues including requiring disclosure of fracking fluid ingredients, limited baseline testing of groundwater, well integrity, requiring submission of an emergency response plan and requiring fences around open storage pits. While these changes improve upon existing standards, numerous shortcomings remain, putting our environment and public health at risk. No review at all is scheduled for the impacts of fracking on the health of residents nor on the impact on the environment.
Concerns about DMME’s draft standards include:
- Open air fracking waste storage pits should be prohibited.
- Disposing of fracking wastewater by spreading it on agricultural or forest land should be prohibited.
- The standard should provide substantial setbacks from gas wells and infrastructure to protect springs, rivers, lakes, streams, flood plains, parks, playgrounds, schools, hospitals, and other important natural and community resources.
- Drilling through drinking water aquifers should be prohibited.
- Drilling companies must have plans approved for thoroughly and safely testing, labeling, transporting, and disposing of drilling waste. Drilling waste must not simply be buried at the well site, as the draft standard would allow in western Virginia.
- Using injection waste wells should be prohibited in seismically active parts of Virginia due to earthquake risks. Injection wells should also be prohibited within 100 miles of nuclear power plants due to the definitive link between injection wells and earthquakes, which have been shown to increase the number and severity of earthquakes.
- The standard should address serious air pollution risks, including methane leaks, from wells and related infrastructure.
The Stronger panel’s review will be limited in scope to existing regulations, and will not cover draft regulations promulgated by DMME.