taking the scenic out of scenic byways

June 17, 2013

garrett county

Winter in unfracked Garrett County.

I’m going out on a limb here: A scenic byway with a drill pad for fracking natural gas 300 feet away will no longer be scenic. A scenic or wild river 300 feet from that drill pad will no longer be scenic or provide a sense of wilderness.

And yet, those are some of the setbacks for drilling rigs listed in the state’s draft of Best Management Practices (BMPs) for fracking in Garrett and Allegany counties in Western Maryland.

The 15-member Marcellus Shale Initiative Advisory Commission got its last chance last week to look over the document being prepared by the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Department of the Environment (MDE).  Before releasing the BMPs to the public, the state departments are making final adjustments based on that discussion. Individual commissioners can also provide comments for a planned appendix. The BMPs will in turn be incorporated into regulations for drilling permits if Maryland opens the door to fracking.

Commissioner and Delegate Heather Mizeur, for starters, questioned why a drilling rig can be closer to a private well than to a public water supply. The draft plan says borewells must be 2,000 feet from a public groundwater well or surface water intake but can be 1,000 feet from a private well.  “It seems we should care as much about private wells as public,” Mizeur said. “If a private well is damaged, the homeowner is out the entire value of the property.”

Commissioner Jeffrey Kupfer, a senior adviser with Chevron Government Affairs, said imposing a 2,000-foot setback from all wells would make locating a spot for drilling all the more difficult. He said “lots of alternatives” exist for replacing a private water supply. (I can think of only two: huge “water buffalo” replacement tanks, a term I had never encountered before reading about families in Pennsylvania who had lost use of their water; and hooking up a household to the public water supply. That’s also done in Pennsylvania, leaving families with a monthly water bill and a feeling of contamination they never had before.) Although he said he didn’t want to discuss all the setbacks, Kupfer said, “I do think a number of these are excessive, based on actual scientific evidence.”

Drs. Keith N. Eshleman and Andrew J. Elmore of the University of Maryland’s Appalachian Laboratory had a different assessment of setbacks. In their recommended BMPs that are the basis for the state’s draft, they write: “How much protection (if any) these setbacks can provide can clearly be debated; many setbacks do not seem to be based on solid scientific reasoning or empirical data. Nevertheless, both industry and the state benefit when setbacks are clearly stated in statutes or regulations.”

Eight incorporated municipalities in Garrett County have public water systems from surface water and groundwater, while the remaining properties in the county have private wells. Private wells are concentrated most heavily around McHenry, Grantsville and Oakland, according to the DNR.  In all, 14,264 private wells are in the county, including 8,250 wells on top of land that at one point was leased for Marcellus Shale. (Not all of the leases remain in effect.)

Mizeur insisted that the loss of a private well to one family is a “gigantic disruption. They don’t have water to bathe in or drink.” And their property is worthless, Commissioner Paul Roberts said. He again argued for the 2,000-foot setback — a buffer federal regulators granted to Dominion Transmission Inc. when it sought to protect its Sabinsville Storage Pool in Pennsylvania from nearby fracking.  He says the state has no justification for the 1,000-foot setback and shouldn’t be in a position of “disregard[ing] evidence offered by the industry itself about the risks of drilling too close to resources that demand protection.”

Kupfer insisted there “clearly is a difference” between a private well and a source for public water. The setbacks are based on a risk-benefit calculation, and “That’s just reality,” he said.

Roberts, a farmer and winery owner, wanted to include in the regulations a cap on levels of disturbance to the land. The draft BMPs include a 2 percent cap only in high-value watersheds. “If there is not a limit set on the total amount of development, [the BMPs are] only asserting a methodical pace to industrialization,” he said. “If we don’t set limits on the industrialization, the county will cease to be rural.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited said even the 2 percent disturbance would be “devastating” near trout streams.

The Eshleman report says strong BMPs can limit land disturbance to “less than 1 – 2 percent.” It recommends minimizing the number and density of well pads, because the “infrastructure will likely be in place for at least a 30-year period before final reclamation.”

“I hope someone is doing the math,” Roberts said a few days after the meeting. A 2-percent cap “would be an outrageously high rate of development in a high-value watershed.”

Kupfer questioned a sentence in the draft that calls for initial drilling areas to be “removed from sensitive natural resource values.”  Christine Conn of DNR said the idea is to drill in “less sensitive areas” first to reduce “unintended impacts.”

Weber, though, said “I don’t know what is less needed for less-sensitive wells than for more-sensitive wells.”

Brigid Kenney of MDE said the state doesn’t intend to be “less protective” in any area, but “if we make a mistake, and something goes wrong, we will have time to correct [that] if what goes wrong is not in the most sensitive place.” 

Chairman David Vanko, for not the first time, suggested an airplane analogy: One wouldn’t fly a new plane over Manhattan, he said.  At a previous meeting, he has said the goal is to make fracking in Maryland as safe as the airline industry. Which seems overly optimistic. And beside the point, because airline travel is not compulsory, while living next to drilling will be if fracking goes forward.

Commissioner Harry Weiss, an attorney in fracked Pennsylvania, heralded the proposed Comprehensive Gas Drilling Plans (CGDP). “I don’t know whether industry will buy into this,” he said, “[but] to the extent this survives…what we are seeing is a revolution in this field…[that is] designed to give Maryland the most protective program in the nation.” He said he is “skeptical that it will fly, in that companies will squawk,” but if Maryland turns the BMPs into strong regulations, “Maryland will have the best…environmental protection program for shale gas development.”

Kupfer said he remained dissatisfied with state’s plan to require CGDPs. “I think saying one has the most protective [regulations] is not necessarily the most desirable in itself.” The state could have the most protective plan but then no gas development. “I think it’s highly unlikely that any company will go through this process,” he said. The CGDPs involve “too many moving pieces,” and the “resources involved for uncertain outcome would not be worth it.”

Last year, Garrett County closed two elementary schools rather than raise property taxes. Assessments had yielded $2 million less in revenue than the previous year, and even a last-minute $500,000 addition from the Board of Commissioners wasn’t enough.  George Edwards, who is a member of the shale advisory commission, a state senator in Garrett since 2007 and a long-time delegate, has mentioned the budget gap and the school closings as a rationale for fracking. He anticipates and welcomes what he predicts will be an economic boost from this industry. But this solution – fracking for a fossil fuel – seems unimaginative and counterproductive, as it puts those very schoolchildren in the middle of an industrial zone (borehole setback from occupied building: 1,000 feet), jeopardizing their health, their rural and majestic surroundings, and even their climate. Fracking also threatens to crack the economic bedrock of the region’s tourism economy so dependent on scenic byways and wild rivers.  If Garrett is to “save” its schools in this manner, officials should at least rename them to honor their benefactor. How’s this: Chevron Elementary. And Fracking Elementary.

–by elisabeth hoffman

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3 Responses to “taking the scenic out of scenic byways”

  1. Maryland would be making a huge mistake if it allows drilling to go ahead. That whole “risk versus benefit” equation is one sided. There is no benefit to a well owner if his water is contaminated.

    The water buffalo is also a costly proposition – it needs to be heated in winter to keep it from freezing. And what happens down the road when all the shale is gone and so is the gas company. You can’t “unpollute” an aquifer.

    Nicely done, Elisabeth.

  2. Thank you, Mike, for revealing yet more about the water buffalo.

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