Rappahannock Water Quality Endangered by Fracking?

Rappahannock River
Rappahannock River. Image credit: American Rivers.

American Rivers has listed the Rappahannock River as the fifth “most endangered” river in the United States. The environmental group claims the river is threatened by industry interest in hydraulic fracturing (fracking) operations in the Taylorsville Basin lying thousands of feet beneath the river. The quality of drinking water of three million people in eastern Virginia are at stake.

The Rappahannock joins company with the Lower Colorado River (the most endangered), which is threatened by excess water consumption; California’s Bear River, which is imperiled by a new dam; the South Fork Skykomish River in Washington, which is jeopardized by a new hydropower project; and six other rivers. These rivers are not necessarily the most polluted. Rather, American Rivers highlights in its “America’s Most Endangered Rivers 2017” report ten rivers whose fates will be affected by the political process in the upcoming year.

The watershed of the Rappahannock, the longest free-flowing river in Virginia, encompasses all or parts of 18 counties, the report notes, and supports thriving agricultural and seafood sectors as well as recreational activity.

American Rivers is concerned that 85,000 acres in five counties along the tidal Rappahannock are leased for oil and gas exploration. Only one of the five counties has enacted a land use ordinance to protect against the impact of fracking. Last year, Governor Terry McAuliffe approved new regulations that would require baseline water testing and monitoring along with the disclosure of any chemicals used in the fracking process. The oil and gas lobby introduced legislation to weaken the regs in the 2017 General Assembly session, but the effort was beaten back. Says American Rivers:

It is clear that the threats that industrial gas development and fracking pose to the rural and agricultural communities along the Rappahannock River are not going away. The first line of defense lies with local government, which has the power to establish local protections to protect the drinking water for millions of citizens.

Last  year Prince George County amended its zoning ordinance to require hefty setbacks for gas wells, effectively making 91% of the county unavailable for drilling. But Westmoreland, Essex, Caroline, and King and Queen Counties have yet to act.

Here’s the source of concern: Gas companies must drill through the Potomac Aquifer to reach the gas in the Taylorsville Basin, which is reported to contain more than 1 trillion cubic feet of gas, equivalent to two-and-a-half times the volume of gas consumed in Virginia in a year. Fracking injects sand and chemicals under high pressure to fracture the rock sufficiently for oil and gas to flow through it. Although oil and gas companies seal off drill holes where they pass through aquifers, environmentalists claim that potentially toxic chemicals still can leak into the Potomac Aquifer and, from there, eventually into the Rappahannock River.

Bacon’s bottom line: Environmental groups are adamant that fracking represents a danger to the aquifer and water supply. The oil and gas industry is equally insistent that fracking poses minimal risk. Each side cites seemingly authoritative studies. Who knows?

The Taylorsville Basin contains maybe one-fortieth the volume of gas contained in the famed Marcellus Basin, which has transformed energy economics in the United States, but it’s nothing to sneeze at. The gas has an economic value of $2 billion to $4 billion, maybe more, depending upon the current price of natural gas. That represents a lot of economic activity for five economically depressed rural counties.

Admittedly, a billion dollars or so in local payroll and royalties won’t be much consolation if fracking ruins the water supply. But more than 8,000 wells have been hydraulically fractured in Southwest Virginia with no documented instances of surface or groundwater contamination, according to state geologist David Spears.

The McAuliffe administration made a prudent decision, it seems to me, to establish a baseline of data on Potomac Aquifer water quality and to require gas companies to disclose the chemicals they use in fracking. If chemicals used in fracking are not found in the aquifer but suddenly appear after drilling begins, it is not unreasonable to conclude that fracking created the problem. Conversely, if none of the chemicals show up in the aquifer, no harm is likely being done.

Regardless, the American Rivers report signals that the Taylorsville Basin is on the radar screen of national environmental groups. I expect they will pour considerable resources into fighting development of the basin. Linking that fight to the conservation of the treasured Rappahannock River is shrewd public relations.

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22 responses to “Rappahannock Water Quality Endangered by Fracking?”

  1. One real issue is waste water disposal. Lots of waste water is pumped up and this has to go somewhere. There would need to be an acceptable solution for this problem.

    The groundwater issue presumes we allow shoddy workmanship and the wells inadvertently put pollution into the aquifer, which we allow to happen, and somehow this groundwater makes its way to surface sources without the natural attenuation that normally happens.

    In other words, I don’t think too many rivers if any are threatened by slow moving groundwater contamination from fracking wells. The main issue for the rivers is dumping of surface waste water (eg; could be from fracking), runoff from farms, sewage etc.

    But I stand corrected, the mere suggestion that fracking could be used in a sentence is enough to put the poor Rappahannock River in a severely endangered condition.

  2. The Hampton Roads Sanitation District plan to recycle treated waste water and inject it into the Potomac aquifer at West Point is supposed to help Hampton Roads ensure their water supply and alleviate the subsidence from the enormous amounts of water used in West Point and Franklin. If there should be any contamination from fracking, I don’t think Hampton Roads will care as much about the Rappahannock River as they will about the loss of their water supply.

    1. OK sounds like you are saying there could be a solution for the wastewater problem. That could explain the eco groups trying to use groundwater as a chemo-phobia tactic. Not saying we have to allow fracking, but the argument that fracking is somehow an enormous evil worse than other development, is potentially flawed.

      1. If treatment and reinjection of “waste” water is NOT feasible/advisable, then there are Virginia industries such as those water-squanderers in West Point and Hampton Roads that should be shut down immediately, as they are wasting a precious groundwater asset that future citizens of Tidewater will require for more important functions than pulp paper manufacturing — like drinking.

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    One of the things to recognize whether it is fracking, or coal ash, or pipelines is what the permit process is really about.

    The applicants are not asking for DEQ (or other regulators) to give them a permit – and if things go sideways – they’ll be responsible ..for the costs.


    What the applicants are doing is asking for a permit where DEQ certifies that the conditions under which the permit is issued – are those that the State has determined is safe – AND if things go sideways later on – it is the State who is on the hook for determining that the activity was “safe”.

    And if things actually do go sideways – the applicants will say ” We followed the permit to the letter exactly as the state stipulated”.

    so the applicants are basically asking the state to take responsibility for whether or not the fracking/coal ash/pipeline is “ok”.

    The applicants, of course, in the lead-up to the permit will strenuously advocate for the lowest requirements possible just as you see Dominion doing that with the coal ash and pipeline… but in the end – it’s the state that makes the determination – AND takes responsibility.

    so… when the state stipulates that there be “monitoring” and remediation if it shows degradation beyond the limits of the permit – the State is trying to put some level of responsibility back on the applicant – and as they say – the devil is in the details – as Jim illustrated in his recent blog thread entitled ” A Brain-Frying Foray into the Regulatory Maze”.

    In fact, there were several bills introduced in the 2017 General Assembly to require disclosure of fracking chemicals that all failed.. and as far as I can tell the fracking companies do not have to disclose the chemicals they use – (much less apparently get a permit for how they are handled on the site to prevent runoff or escape into the aquifer.

    But before we get spun up on this too much – also recognize that the aquifers below virtually every city in Va is also polluted from sewage, runoff and fuel tanks ,etc)…. combined sewer overflows.. not only go into rivers.. they go into aquifers.. septic tanks, pet poop .. anti-freeze and oil from parking lots, etc..

  4. TooManyTaxes Avatar

    The environmentalists would have a stronger case if they were making as much effort to stop the City of Alexandria from dumping raw sewerage into the Potomac River every time it rains hard like last night.

    All and all, it looks like the General Assembly and Governor took reasonable action. As Larry wrote, it’s the responsibility of the Commonwealth to see that this issue is handled correctly.

    1. One day a couple years ago, I volunteered with the DEQ to remove invasive water chestnut plants from the Potomac at around Mason Neck. We were knee deep in muck, and I felt like I had never done anything so unsanitary in my whole life. Took a shower for about an hour and threw some silt-stained work clothes out.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    cities and even the Federal Govt are little different from corporations when it comes to pollution – both the restrictions and later remediation.

    higher costs hurt corporations bottom line and they hurt taxpayers in Alexandria and other locales including Northern Va and Fairfax with it’s stormwater runoff that has essentially destroyed the creeks in the area.

    Storm water fees to fix these problems are opposed by taxpayers in many areas…

    It’s always the “environmentalists” “fault” whenever they are involved .. if they try to urge better environmental practices in one area or industry- the boo-birds (who themselves often never lift a finger on environmental issues) will blame the “environmentalists” for not pursuing other problems or a 100% opposite blame for actually pursuing something that folks think they should not.

    so “environmentalist” are modern-day whipping boys for the right and for many who say they are not Conservative but still don’t like environmentalists.

    We’ve already got a taste of how the current administration plans to roll back environmental protections.. and our own DEQ more than willing to roll over on things like coal ash, pipelines and yes… Alexandria and Fairfax storm water issues.

    Others call these environmental protections – “job killing regulations”. You’ve heard it right here in BR almost on a continuous basis!

    1. Undoubtedly a double standard…localities in Va. look at pollution as something that should be considered good government due to tax savings if a town does it.

    2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Larry, Fairfax County operates its own sanitary sewer system in parts of the County. In other areas, it leases capacity from other systems, including the City of Alexandria. And, of course, more rural areas use septic systems. Fairfax County is billed by the other sewer systems at rates that include both CapEx and OpEx. These costs are included on sewer bills.

      The County has also established a tax district for storm water and is phasing in higher taxes each year (FY 2017 is $0.0275 per hundred. I cannot recall the target cap – ?? $0.04 or $0.05.

  6. Water quality is a major issue with fracking. Especially since drillers have received the “Halliburton Exemption” from Congress that relieves them from meeting the requirements of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other water quality regulations. Despite numerous studies showing water contamination from drilling activities a finding of “no significant” water quality impacts supported the passage of this legislation.

    Natural gas pipelines are also a source of contamination. Millions of gallons of pristine stream water will be used to hydrostatically test the new pipeline. Clean water will pass through the pipeline that has numerous compounds left from fabrication and welding and then be dumped back into a stream or reused for another segment of pipe.

    Pipeline construction can also cause more problems than the “No significant impact” expected by FERC. The Rover pipeline spilled an estimated 2 million gallons of drilling fluid pollutants into wetlands “adjacent to” the Tuscarawas River in Navarre, Ohio, last week, according to a notice of violation filed by the Ohio EPA. Another 50,000 gallons of fluid were spilled into wetlands closer to Columbus. The pipeline just began construction last month — thanks to a last-minute certificate from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission before Commissioner Bay resigned.

    The horizontal drilling activity that caused the Rover spills is exactly what is planned to go under the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Ridge Parkway, exiting near the entrance to Wintergreen.

    These are not inconsequential effects nor are they unlikely despite the pronouncements of the regulators. It happens all to frequently according to subcontractors hired to haul fracking wastewater away.

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      TomH – why can’t pipelines be elevated over stream crossings at streams and small rivers? The Alaska Pipelines are all elevated.

      1. I do not know the criteria used for designing stream crossings. I do know that many are concerned about how close to the surface the ACP is at numerous stream crossings where there is regular flooding. The experts are concerned that scouring from the floods could expose the pipeline to damage from flooding, potentially resulting in explosions or massive releases of methane.

        1. LarrytheG Avatar

          The Alaska pipeline is elevated because it crosses permafrost and the heat of the oil would melt the tundra and collapse the pipe.

          At first, the engineers assumed that the pipeline would be buried underground. That’s how most pipelines are built, after all.

          But no one had ever built a pipeline in a place like Alaska, where it gets so cold that in many parts of the state, the subsoil is permanently frozen. This deep soil, which never thaws, is called permafrost.

          Planners realized that the pipeline couldn’t be buried in the permafrost, because the heat of the oil could cause the icy soil to melt. If the icy soil melted, the pipe would sag and it might leak. In winter, the soil around the pipe would freeze again. This freeze-thaw cycle could cause the pipe to move enough to cause serious damage.

          Workers securing a huge piece of fiberglass insulation around part of the pipeline.
          Fiberglass insulation is being wrapped around the pipeline to reduce heat loss.
          To avoid these complications, the engineers made an important decision: About one-half of the pipeline (about 700 kilometers) would have to be built above ground. They supported the pipe with refrigeration posts that are topped with aluminum radiators. The posts conduct heat away from the soil. The pipeline is also wrapped in 10 centimeters of fiberglass insulation. Both of these measures help to keep the permafrost solid.”


          pipelines are above ground at the compressor stations:


          but would you REALLY want to see an exposed pipeline crossing the Appalachians ?

          I suspect that that would engender even more opponents.

      2. TooManyTaxes Avatar

        There are ways to protect about anything from reasonably expected risks or to mitigate damage. Nothing can eliminate all risk, but I have to believe a pipeline can be engineered to some level of acceptable protection against risks. Now what that does to the price of the pipeline, I don’t know.

        I still believe the goal is not to protect water quality, but rather, to fight all forms of fossil fuel use. I don’t know what the risk of water contamination is presented by the pipeline, but I do know the risk of human waste entering the Potomac River from Alexandria’s combined sewer system is 100%, multiple times per year. Ergo, if I were the government decision-maker, I’d discount the American Rivers’ credibility heavily.

        1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

          And Governor McAuliffe reluctantly signed a bill to give Alexandria until 2025 to fix its sewer problem. He wanted to give the City until 2030. What if the issue were carbon emissions?

          According to state senator Scott Surovell, “The existing legislation will allow Alexandria to dump about 1.2 billion gallons or 1,800 Olympic-size swimming pools of raw sewage into the Potomac River over the next eight years. I think that’s enough.”

          Environmentalism is about power and control.

  7. Btu Analytics estimates that 40 million barrels per day of wastewater is produced from fracking operations related to oil and gas development in the US. Is it realistic to assume that all of this water is properly disposed of by drillers, especially when many are selling below the cost of production and are looking to limit costs any way they can?

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    Few if any of the fracking companies would find fracking financially viable if they had to post bonds to cover potential damages..

    the risk would be theirs – not taxpayers or citizens.

    But most are looking for is for the Govt to give them a “bye” on the
    potential damage …

    this would be like your neighbor wanting to dump motor oil or paint on your property – and get the state to say it’s okay..unless you can prove the dumped stuff could cause harm 10, 20 years after the fact.

    This is how taxpayers ended up with thousands of superfund sites.

    The State could force these companies to fund a study to determine the risk – and the State could require the level of insurance commensurate to the risk but if they did – most of them would run away.

    The question is – if you’d support the state requiring such bonds – would that make you an “environmentalist” or NIMBY or obstructionist?

  9. It is exactly that freedom from liability that makes the nuclear and vaccination industries possible. If a nuclear plant had to purchase liability insurance the same way it is purchased for a coal, natural gas or solar facility, the cost of nuclear generated energy would be 10-40 times higher than it is.

  10. LarrytheG Avatar

    There obviously is some middle ground – that allows companies to extract resources and society to benefit from them ….but not without risks and liabilities.. and who is responsible for them.

    Companies tend to want permits that absolve them of responsibility for longer term impacts and costs – that would end up making their venture uneconomic.

    Municipalities are little different. They’ll build sewer systems that also drain streets then when storms overwhelm their treatment plants – and not want to go back and address the combined sewer overflow issues. And would not if it were not for the EPA as most state DEQs lack political support to do that since their marching orders come from the State legislatures whose representatives are from the areas that would have to pay to remediate.

    Most cities are now, ironically, building huge tunnels to store storm runoff but recognize that few completely intercept all storm events… the bigger ones may well still overwhelm the tunnels and the treatment plants – and , not well recognized – still contaminate the aquifer below….

    Essentially – cities are giant versions of single family septic field sites – the primary difference being that one home on an acre of two – sewage – will get “cleaned” as it percolates through the soil layers but the threshold (depending on soil conditions) is usually an acre and anything more dense that that – Will result in contamination of the aquifer below. This is also the case where the water table is near the surface and in those cases – septic systems will contaminate even at low density.

    The agency that controls that is not DEQ but instead the health department because it’s not contamination of the aquifer per se – it’s the fact that the homeowner is using that aquifer for his drinking water and poop byproducts tend to make that water – unhealthy to drink.

    No better – is the presence of other contaminates that render the aquifer unsafe to drink and by extension – the loss of the land as a place to put a home.

    Ironically in Virginia – there are almost no rules with respect to private wells beyond the fact that when they are initially drilled – the driller has to do a test and provide it to the health dept to get a certificate.

    After that – it is solely up to the owner to be responsible for testing and detection of contamination. A very high number of bored wells in Virginia have coliform contamination – because they are often shallow 30 feet or so and too near the surface and receive runoff from surface layers – fields and even forest litter but also pet and other animal poop.. etc.

    there are no rules for this in Virginia. In fact, if Virginia were to have rules – a huge number of wells would be declared unsafe and that, in turn, would endanger the home being fit to occupy.

    So – because of that – other activities – like fracking – that could contaminate the aquifer are not well regulated.. in terms of what kinds of materials are in their drilling and runoff and what effect they have on the safety of drinking water.

    So the bottom line is that the State does not protect the aquifer and by extension the drinking water that people who own private wells – require in order to be able to inhabit their homes – not to mention the value of their home and property – if the well is no longer fit as a drinking water source.

    It’s a conundrum not well recognized by observers of the fracking issue but keenly aware of by well owners.. who want some level of assurance and financial responsibility for ANYONE who would engage in activities that could end up contaminating their well… as we have seen is the same issue with Dominion and coal ash and one of the “solutions” at one site Possum Point is to extend the water and sewer to those houses.

    but that’s not a solution for folks that live in rural areas – there is no water/sewer .. they’re totally reliant on their wells.

    So… are the folks who are involved in the fracking issue – “enviro weenies”, NIMBY, or obstructionists or are they home owners with legitimate concerns?

    1. TooManyTaxes Avatar

      Traditionally, utilities and common carriers have limited their liability for events beyond their control to zero and for their own negligence to the cost of service. They cannot limit their liability for gross negligence or willful acts. But this ability to limit liability extends only to their customers. A utility or common carrier’s liability to third parties is the same as that for any other business.

      Absent other factors or differences in the governing law, a utility would not be strictly liable for a spill or other damage, but would be subject to a duty to act in a reasonable manner and follow applicable standards. A pipeline company that follows all government rules and industry standards for constructing its facility and that maintains it the same manner might not be liable for a spill — at least not absent more.

  11. LarrytheG Avatar

    Well… liability accrues only to the extent that the permit rules were not followed and fracking companies are not regulated utilities – they are free market for-profit ventures that can and do go away after they have finished their drilling or even if they have not – they just cease to exist.

    but the permit rules themselves also can and have a significant role in liability in that those rules can limit liability by having the govt set the
    standards and if those standards are followed – then the company defends itself by saying it followed the law. Problem is if the permit itself is bad – then the pubic is not protected – and no one can be held to account.

    For instance, in the case of fracking – the types of materials used in fracking… the potential for those materials to end up in the aquifer or in surface runoff are not generally liable.. they are essentially waived. The chemicals themselves are not required to be disclosed, much less if those materials are considered harmful.

    The drillers are not held held to any specific limits so any amount is acceptable and not limited by the permit.

    An injured person could sue – if they had enough money to go up against a corporate legal office … but even then.. if they could and did win – the company would just declare bankruptcy and the injured party not compensated.

    This is how the EPA first came into existence. Prior to it’s existence – companies would pollute lands, water and air that they did not own – at will and then used their power and money to shut down individual legal actions – and then if they could not do that – they just went bankrupt leaving behind a damaged environment and injured property owners.

    Even then – just 17 years ago – the story of Erin Brockovich who fought against the Pacific Gas and Electric Company (PG&E) and eventually won was a classic environmental David and Goliath story.

    In Virginia from 1966 until 1974, Allied Chemical produced Kepone which was not regulated by the EPA at that time – and to this day – Kepone remains at the bottom of the Appomattox and James Rivers with people still warned about not eating bottom feeding fish along those segments.

    Mercury still rains down on the land and waters in Virginia – legally allowed.. even as warnings are posted along some rivers warning that fish are contaminated with the Mercury.

    Some folks say – some reasonable compromise is required and that it’s impossible to have a pristine environment..

    totally true.. but the devil remains thoroughly in the details of what the EPA and DEQ allow and on what basis.

    bottom line – while we have a bunch of folks saying the EPA has gone too far with “job-killing” regulations – we have others – who legitimately fear the government would and will allow their wells to be contaminated by fracking companies.

    for the EPA – it’s danged if you do and danged if you don’t .. and anyone who agrees with the EPA is a leftist enviro weenie…

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