water in W.Va. By Peter Galuszka

Tap water is now drinkable for most of the 300,000 residents in the environs of  Charleston, the capital of Virginia’s sister state to the west, but the mess has ample warnings for future problems notably fracking for natural gas.

The national newspapers are filled with interesting pieces this morning about the problems of now-bankrupt Freedom Industries where 7,500 gallons of a chemical used to treat coal spilled 1.5 miles upstream from a municipal water system intake, making water unusable in Charleston and nine surrounding counties for about a week.

The affected area would be about the size of Chesterfield or Henrico counties individually or more than the entire city of Richmond. Imagine the business losses from the inability to wash dishes in restaurants, wash cars, or even make toilet trips in state office buildings. Think of the unknown health impacts.  Incredibly, that’s what happened in Charleston, the epicenter of the anti-regulation “War on Coal” propagandists.

The takeover warning for Virginia is that it could happen here and did back in the 1970s when Allied Chemical tried to sidestep pollution regulations by setting up a dummy company in a converted gas station in Hopewell to make the highly toxic pesticide chemical Kepone.

One cause for future concern here, as well as in West Virginia, is what happens when hydraulic fracturing for natural gas comes. Fracking, which involves using high pressure water with special chemicals to help break up before-unreachable pockets of natural gas has really taken off in recent years.

Combined with newer horizontal drilling methods, fracking has yielded a cornucopia of natural gas with a huge impact. It is utterly changing the dynamics of the U.S. energy picture and positioning the country to become an exporter of both gas and oil for the first time in decades.

Fracked gas has its pluses. It emits half the carbon dioxide of coal and has nowhere near the death toll for employees. It doesn’t destroy entire mountains. But it can increase the chances of fire, pipeline leaks, rail accidents and threaten water supplies depending on the types of chemicals used in the process.

The West Virginia case provides chilling inadequacies with regulation. The tanks at Freedom Industries were inspected for air emissions but not for leaks, even though they were built in the 1940s and 1950s. Ownership wound around a polyglot of corporations.

Within one week of the spill and facing hundreds of millions of dollars in lawsuits, Freedom promptly went bankrupt to protect itself against claims. That means that victims of the spill are doubly screwed. They have to eat the losses from the disaster and now they will find it much harder to get legal compensation.

More chilling is the fact that West Virginia’s legislative and regulatory climate will make it harder to know what’s in gas fracking chemicals when companies move south from Pennsylvania to exploit Marcellus Formation shale that covers most of the state.

The New York Times notes that in West Virginia, state regulators can issue regulations but they can’t be enforced until the lobbyist-heavy legislature approves. A law last year would have required that companies disclose the types of chemicals they use for fracking but under pressure from oil equipment giant Halliburton, lawmakers decided to make them confidential.

The same aura of confidentiality in favor of industry pervades Virginia which prides itself on being “business friendly. Much of what the State Corporation Commission does when it deals with firms or handles electricity rates is immune from the Freedom of Information Act. When former Gov. Robert F. McDonnell set up committees to study uranium mining and the nuclear industry in general, they were likewise immune from the FOIA. A lawyer working for former Attorney General Kenneth Cuccinelli was rebuked by a judge for advocating for energy companies in a lawsuit over natural gas rights.

Fracking could come to Virginia although it isn’t certain when or how much. The state already has more than 7,500 older gas wells near the Southwestern coal fields that do not use fracking.

A sliver of frackable Marcellus formation skirts the West Virginia border west of  Interstate 81 in mountainous regions unused to energy extraction. Rockingham County has already blocked a special land use permit sought by an energy firm. Washington area drinking water officials are seeking limits of fracking in the nearby George Washington National Forest at the headwaters of the Potomac River and other municipal water sources.

Another possibility is the so-called Taylorsville Basin which runs from west of Annapolis to east of Fredericksburg and Richmond and Petersburg in areas better known for crab pots and pine forests. It isn’t known how much gas is actually there, but a Dallas firm, Shore Exploration and Production Corp. is looking.

I don’t know offhand what rules Virginia actually has in place to reveal the chemicals companies use for fracking, but it is obviously something to watch. One example not to follow is that of the Mountain State.

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9 responses to “West Virginia’s Lessons on Fracking”

  1. The Virginia FOIA statute is a joke. It is riddled with exceptions built for specific entities or functions. The prices for Phase I of Dulles Rail construction were exempt from disclosure under FOIA, even though public contract prices must be made available to the public.

  2. perhaps they should change FOIA to FPFLFI – foolish people fruitlessly looking for information. does roll of the lips like FOIA though.

    I’m yet to be convinced on the fracking issue. Yeah I’ve seen the guy lighting his faucet but natural gas is found “naturally” in some aquifers… so I’m not convinced.

    and if I HAD to choose – right now – without further authoritative, the less of the two evils of coal and natgas is the latter.

    We are raining down mercury on the country-side with coal and if that ain’t worse than fracking.. someone needs to read me the riot act.

  3. this is what Virginia looks like in terms of mercury emissions:


  4. Breckinridge Avatar

    The bankruptcy of one shell corporation in WVA does not mean nobody is going to held accountable and no compensation will be squeezed out somewhere. It will take time. The problem is the lawyers will take 71.2 percent of what is paid….

    I too am fine with moving from mining coal to more reliance on natural gas, even if fracking techniques are used to extract it. I recently experience a long Dominion outage on a very cold day, and watched the house get colder and colder….freezing to death is something to worry about too, you know.

  5. Breckinridge – may I suggest a nat gas (or propane) backup generator?

  6. An interesting development in Europe, where so many people look down on Cowboy Americans. http://www.spiegel.de/international/europe/european-commission-move-away-from-climate-protection-goals-a-943664.html

  7. Why is there NEVER any discussion of human behavioral change towards how to use less energy so that we don’t need to drill/frack/mountain-top-removal/strip-tar-sands/etc?

    The vast majority of oil use in America is in our individual cars and trucks BUT never do we read about ways to help Americans drive less — even though driving less would help 1) the environment; 2) the atmosphere; 3) the trade deficit; 4) our health; 5) our foreign policy; 6) our pocketbooks.

    We never hear that Americans pay — even before fracked oil turned into gasoline really enters the market — the same against income for gasoline that our great grandparents paid in the 1920s or that in the OECD nations Americans enjoy the second lowest average cost for auto fuel (major oil-exporter Mexico is the only one with a lower cost.)

    And our only “plan” to decrease household energy use is to replace incandescent light bulbs EVEN though lighting creates only about five percent of the typical household’s energy consumption. Fracked gas may create less greenhouse emissions than coal but it still creates emissions; it still creates (probable) water issues; it still creates this illusion that some ‘technological trap” will get us out of our massive problem of using so much energy. If China is our major economic competitor, one point which is never made is that per capita the Chinese use one-sixth of the carbon that individual Americans use. Even the Europeans use half of what we do.

    Wouldn’t it be better if we started talking about our alleged “need” for so much energy, so that we can start making long-term rational decisions.

    We spend billions to build new highways in Virginia and indeed tax milk to do so but we never talk about learning how to drive less? We complain about subsidizing transit but we never note that we Americans subsidize highways at rate almost four times what we subsidize transit.

    Mark Twain said that “Man is the only animal that blushes and the only one that needs to.” The author of “Letters From the Earth” (amongst 20 better known books) wouldn’t just be humorous today about Americans’ failure to heed what is so obvious.

  8. mbaldwin Avatar

    This latest from W. Va. calls to mind Harry Caudill’s “Night Comes to the Cumberland,” — a classic (1962, I believe) along with Rachel Carson’s piece — about the tragic human-environment interaction in W. Va and eastern Ky, beginning with horrendous deforestation, then uncontrolled deep coal mining, then strip mining. He died before mountaintop mining but when I visited him in eastern Ky in 1972 he’d given up — recommended a TVA plan to flood most of the area. The degradation and regulation-free zone lives on.

    We overestimate the GHG benefits of fracking: See http://www.co2scorecard.org/link/Index/288,16, which makes the point that “It is well known that natural gas generates only half the CO2 of coal for every MWh of electricity generation. However, there are two offsets that nibble away at these CO2 savings. The first is the component of natural gas generation that displaces nuclear and renewable sources of energy that have no emissions. The second is methane leaks. Using the US electricity sector data for 2012, we show that even at a low leakage rate of 1.22% (USEPA’s estimate for power plants comparison) the two offsets combined were sufficient to almost erode the entire annual savings in CO2 from coal-to-gas fuel switching.”

  9. re: the status quo on energy use.

    maybe a little bit of half empty/half full thinking..

    people are more aware and do save … with more fuel efficient cars and appliances, etc but they’re not going to give up warm homes for warm rooms (like Europe does) nor bike to get dinner and wine … at least not until energy is so expensive that draconian becomes trendy.

    odd/even days at the gas station and 55mph and thermostats at 68 seem so yesterday!

    we now import less oil than we have for decades as a result of less use and gusher “tight” oil.

    I think American would LIKE to cut their fuel and electricity use by 2/3rds but they want technology to do it.

    If Ford started selling F-150’s that got 50mpg ..they would not be able to make enough of them!

    If someone invented a whatchamagigit that could power your entire house for 19.95 a month.. all heck would break loose!

    People WANT to save energy. I mean hells-bells – everytime I go to WalMart people are hauling plastic bags to recycle and the dump, er the “transfer station” is completely awash in glass, cans, cardboard and newspapers! Only problem is the country has to pay to take it away and some have capitalized on it to say that separation is not necessary – just what they call “single-stream” recycling… in which, in theory, the stuff once transported is sent on a conveyor belt to squads of guys frantically grabbing items to recycle.

    My suspicions are that the place where this activity occurs is powered by unicorns…

    but I digress..in their hearts people want to be “green” … but… in their minds, no way.

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