the cautious approach

April 18, 2014


Mist on the mountains in unfractured Garrett County.//photo by Crede Calhoun

Maryland agencies that ignore studies linking fracking to explosive methane levels in water wells are on a par with climate-change deniers.

That’s according to a Duke University scientist who urged state regulators to take a “cautious” approach and protect people living near fracking wells with 1-kilometer buffers.

In their most recent updates to draft best practices, though, the agencies have not incorporated that safety zone.

Avner Vengosh, speaking this week via a Web hookup to members of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission and state regulators, explained and defended his research that shows that some water wells within a kilometer of fracking operations have dangerously high levels of explosive and flammable methane, propane and ethane. This fugitive gas contamination is unlike the trace amounts of methane found in most water wells outside the 1-kilometer (3,280 feet) radius. The stray gas contains ethane and propane, he said, and has a heavier isotopic fingerprint. He said it comes from leaking annuli or faulty casings around the drill, a persistent problem industry has long documented. Homes near these wells have had to find other sources of water, and even the suspicion of contamination has devalued homes, he said. The gas migration also indicates a pathway for future toxic contamination, said Vengosh, a professor of geochemistry and water quality.

best image of leaky casing

This industry diagram shows methane’s path through a leaky casing to the aquifer.

The Duke research is ongoing and the next study, in the review stage but soon to be published, he described as a “slam dunk.” The Duke scientists have published several studies about methane migration, each incorporating more well samples from northeast Pennsylvania. They also have studied the inadequate treatment and disposal of the radioactive and briny wastewater and surface contamination from leaks and spills.

Paul Roberts, the citizen representative on the shale advisory commission, told Vengosh that state agencies, echoing the industry position, had rejected the 1-kilometer setback. They had determined that the Duke study, because it lacked baseline levels, failed to show conclusively that drilling had caused the methane contamination.

Vengosh said he found that “kind of insulting.” He compared that stance to climate change deniers. “So, if shale gas is totally safe … if that is what this commission believes, I would suggest that the commission have no setbacks at all. Why is 1,000 feet good and 3,000 bad? … If you believe in something or not is irrelevant,” he said. The data show “3,000 feet would be more protective.”

He labeled the recent clamor for baseline studies “a clever way” to question the environmental science and suggested it was driven by lawyers trying to defend industry in contamination lawsuits. The water wells outside the drilling areas indicate the background levels, he said. He collects baseline levels when possible, but he said scientists should not be held “hostage” to pressure for a baseline to determine stray gas or other contamination. No one asks for baseline comparisons on, for example, wastewater, sewage or road salt contamination, Vengosh said.

He also cautioned that research is just beginning and ”our knowledge is very limited,” which puts state regulators in the position of having to weigh industry-funded studies against academic studies. “If I were in your position, I would try to be as cautious as possible,” he said.

Commission Chairman David Vanko asked Vengosh whether the research showed a correlation between the contaminated water wells and whether the water source was up- or down-gradient from the gas well. (Up-gradient is the below-ground version of upwind or upstream.) But Vengosh said the Duke scientists had not detected “any patterns” on that. Gas, he said, flows vertically — up the channel created by the well.

At the meeting, state regulators outlined several setback revisions for the draft Best Management Practices. But they weren’t buying the 1-kilometer setback.

The standard setback for private wells would be 2,000 feet, up from 1,000 feet —but could be reduced to 1,000 feet if the driller showed, through a hydrological study, that the well pad was not up-gradient from the underground water source. Also, the setback from streams, rivers, seeps, springs, wetlands, lakes, ponds, reservoirs, and 100-year floodplains would be 450 feet, up from 300 feet. Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning for the Department of Natural Resources, said the proposed setbacks are designed to reduce the risk of contamination from surface spills.

“The state is making a huge mistake,” said Roberts, who had long pressed for regulators to have a presentation from one of the Duke scientists. The 1,000-foot buffer, in particular, is based on regulations from the early 1990s before fracking in unconventional shales had begun, he said. The setbacks are “not protective in any way” and indicate state agencies’ refusal to accept the Duke findings, Roberts said.

“I object to that characterization,” Conn said. She said the agencies accept the study but disagree that the setback would be the “appropriate practice” to prevent methane contamination.

In a letter opposing a bill setting a minimum 1-kilometer distance between gas wells and drinking wells, however, the state Department of the Environment said its rationale was that “none of the published articles has shown a causal relationship between the gas wells and the measured [methane] concentrations.”

Commissioner Nick Weber of Trout Unlimited also endorsed larger buffers between drinking water and gas wells. “If you have this lack of data, then the precautionary principle or approach should be to embrace a broader protection area,” he said.

Commissioner Ann Bristow of the Savage River Watershed Association said the agencies should consider increasing the proposed 1,000-foot setback from occupied structures, such as homes and schools. Recent studies show air pollution could pose even greater harm than water contamination, she said. A 2012 study showed health risks significantly greater for residents living up to a half-mile (2,640 feet) from wells. And two studies have found fracking is bad for babies: A study in progress has found evidence of lower birth weights within 3.5 kilometers (11,482 feet) of a wellhead. A study not yet published but presented at the American Economic Association also found low birth weights and other health problems in babies born within 2.5 kilometers of fracking sites.

According to the commission’s timeline, air pollution is on the agenda for the May 16 meeting.

–elisabeth hoffman

HB 865 Setback Graphic.2A

Citizen Shale modified an EPA graphic to illustrate for legislators how the 1-kilometer buffer would protect private water wells. House Bill 865, which would have mandated that setback, didn’t get out of committee.

sandra steingraber in baltimore

Before speaking at Loyola, Sandra Steingraber lent her support to health professionals and others in Maryland who are criticizing the state’s study of fracking’s health effects. From left: Rebecca Ruggles of Maryland Environment Health Network, Katie Huffling of Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments, Steingraber of Concerned Health Professionals of New York, Ann Bristow, a member of the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, and Jorge Aguilar of Food & Water Watch.

Environmental activist Sandra Steingraber says her first kindergarten art project was a tiled ashtray. Children often made this “infrastructure” for adults’ tobacco addiction, she said. Her parents didn’t even smoke, but everyone needed ashtrays, if not for themselves then for guests. Marketing campaigns made smoking glamorous, pervasive, normal.

During her lifetime, tobacco has largely been “de-normalized,” Steingraber said. “We don’t try to regulate it into safety.” Because smoking is inherently unsafe, the goal is to have no smoking, to abolish it. When her son, then 4, first saw someone smoking outside a cafe, his reaction was, “There’s a man out there trying to light his face on fire.”

Now Steingraber is asking what de-normalizing fossil fuels would look like. Perhaps children of the future will ask: “Really? When you were a kid, you shoveled these fossils into your car to make you go? And you shoveled them into your house to keep warm … [and got asthma] and almost tanked the climate system? That’s just bizarre.”

Steingraber has devoted the last few years to de-normalizing fossil fuels, particularly fracked gas. Last week, she spoke at Loyola University about “The fracking of America: Ethics and Impact.” A scholar-in-residence at Ithaca College with a PhD in biology, Steingraber has “emptied” her bank account, donating her writing awards to form Concerned Health Professionals of New York and New Yorkers Against Fracking. She has testified in Albany repeatedly, analyzed data, written articles and books. A year ago this month, she was jailed for 10 days — becoming a gangsta’ mama to her two children and their friends — for blocking access to an energy company’s compressor station near her town on Seneca Lake. That company wants to store the byproducts of fracking — butane, propane, methane — in salt caverns under the lake, the source of drinking water for 100,000 people. To keep the “overhead costs low,” her family lives in a small house with unmatched dishes from Goodwill. She frequently leaves her children and husband, who is recovering from strokes. “My children have to grow up sometimes without me because I need to be able to tell them: ‘It’s my job as your mother to fight for your future and to make sure you are safe, and if there’s not a stable climate and if there are no pollinators, I can’t be your mother. … So I’ll see you on Friday.”

She is proud to be an activist in this battle, trying “to close the door on fossil fuels and to open the door to renewable energy. To me that seems like a remarkable honor to devote my life to that.” It is, she said, “the moral crisis of our time.”

She also was diagnosed at age 20 with bladder cancer, which almost always is linked to environmental causes. Turns out being a patient, undergoing MRIs and dragging an I.V. pole down a hall while holding closed a backless hospital gown prepared her well for days in a 7-by-7-foot jail cell and for negotiating stairs while wearing an orange jailhouse jumpsuit and ankle chains. Getting arrested and going to jail, she said, is less terrifying than cancer.

She describes our environmental crisis as two connected crises, like a massive tree with two trunks but a common root. “One trunk … represents what’s happening to our planet through the accumulation of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.” That’s the climate crisis, discussed in dire detail in the most recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Follow the branches from this trunk and find drought, floods, unpredictable growing seasons, pollinators arriving at the wrong time, dissolving coral reefs and mass extinctions.

“The other trunk of the tree of crisis represents what’s happening to us through the accumulation of inherently toxic chemical pollutants in our bodies,” she said. Follow that trunk and find increasing asthma rates in children, pediatric cancers, learning disabilities, birth defects.

The common root, she said, is our dependence on fossil fuels. “In an age of extreme fossil fuels,” she said, “both crises are now getting worse.” We have moved from the easy-to-get fossil fuels, which are nearly gone, to mountaintop removal for coal, tar sands mining and massive pipelines, deep-sea drilling for oil, and fracking for natural gas. Maryland, like New York, is at the epicenter of the fracking controversy, she said. Neither state has permitted fracking. Yet.

Since the start of the industrial revolution, she said, we have burned fossilized or vaporized plants and animals for energy and, over time, altered the chemistry of the atmosphere. By lighting coal, oil and gas on fire (and leaking unburnt natural gas), we have tripled the amount of heat-trapping methane and increased by 30 to 40 percent the amount of CO2 in our atmosphere. Excess carbon dioxide warms the planet but also acidifies the oceans. The ocean is 30 percent more acidic than it was before the industrial revolution. “We are on track, if we don’t cease and desist, for dissolving everything with a shell,” she said. Which is alarming not only for those who eat clams, she said. Microscopic zooplankton, the larval form of everything with shells, are key to the ocean’s food web. In addition, the extra heat in the atmosphere also warms the oceans, damaging phytoplankton, which are the food stock for the zooplankton. And phytoplankton? “Phytoplankton provide us with one out of every two breaths that we breathe.”

At the same time, methane — or natural gas — and oil are the starting point for petrochemicals, for plastics, fertilizers, and other toxic substances that alter chromosomes and hormones, that “place cells on the pathway to tumor formation.” And the fossil-fuel-derived pesticides, dioxins and dry-cleaner fluid also show up in human breast milk, which is “still far better than inferior pretender formula.”

Those addressing these crises, she said, have often worked apart. Typically men — such as Bill McKibben, Tim DeChristopher and James Hansen — dominate the climate change group. They look to the future and see climate change as an intergenerational inequality issue. The human rights issue is that we are destroying the climate for those who come after us.

Meanwhile women — she mentioned Lois Gibbs and Rachel Carson but certainly could include herself — have been most concerned with the world of chemical reform and “toxic trespass,” where the human rights issue is the right to bodily integrity and informed consent. “This movement looks to the past,” she said, “as chemicals brought to market years ago without any advance testing or demonstration of safety are now being implicated in human harm.”

The crises are entwined, she said, because “the chemicals that we use to make stuff out of we have available to us because we have chosen to use fossils for our energy system,” she said, and both are creating public health crises. As an example, she mentioned an ethane cracker facility proposed in Allegheny County north of Pittsburgh. The facility would take ethane and process, or “crack,” it into ethylene for plastic bags. “Why do we want to make plastic bags? We are not clamoring for plastic bags,” she said. “But the fracking boom that has blasted molecules of methane out of the ground for our energy has also liberated all this ethane,” she said. And so the cracker facility will make plastic bags that will end up as tiny bits of plastic in the ocean, where they already outnumber plankton by weight in some areas.

Emerging studies show that fracking, like lead paint, asbestos and smoking, can’t be made safe, that many risks are unmanageable. “We shouldn’t spend time putting filters on the cigarette of fracking,” she said. Studies, for example, show fracking connected with smog in otherwise pristine areas, low birth weights, asthma, birth defects. “These are all terrible, expensive problems,” she said. Other research shows 5 percent of the casings around fracking drills fail immediately, with more failing with age. In Pennsylvania alone, fracking has led to 161 cases of water contamination. Yet most of the scientific research has been done in the last year; it has not kept up with the pace of fracking.

Earlier in the day, Steingraber lent her support to Maryland health professionals asking for a delay in the state’s health study on fracking because it is behind schedule, underfunded, and science is just beginning to emerge.

The lateness of the hour and magnitude of the problem can cause despair, she acknowledged. But the good news, she said, is that if we solve the root problem — our dependence on fossil fuels — we will solve both the climate crisis and our health crisis: “We could divorce ourselves from our ruinous dependency on fossil fuels and not only solve our energy problem but detoxify our own lives.”

She highlighted the work of the Solutions Project, the Stanford University research that outlines 50 plans for 50 states to switch to renewable energy. Maryland’s solution, for example, includes a lot of offshore wind and solar power plants.

She acknowledges what psychologists call the “well-informed utility syndrome,” which makes people turn away from more knowledge as well as action because of “unbearable grief, unbearable rage or unbearable guilt.” But “not knowing about the problem isn’t going to engage our ingenuity to help us solve it, and being in despair is the opposite of taking action.”

She said she is “interested in writing in ways that overcome despair.” For inspiration, she looks to the abolitionists who took huge risks and made huge sacrifices to abolish slavery, even though the economy was as linked to it as ours is to fossil fuels. She also looks to 1930s Germany, where her adoptive father, then 18, went off to fight global fascism and parents often made the hard choice to send their children away. Her father knew that “you can’t pretend you don’t see the signs of atrocity all around you. And you can’t sit back on the sidelines and ask, ‘Can I win this fight or not?’ You simply have to do the right thing and put one foot in front of the other and inspire other people to do the same.”

“I didn’t start off intending to be a gansta’ mama,” Steingraber said, but she is willing to do all that she can, including civil disobedience and going to jail, to “redirect the destiny of our nation.”

“That’s what is required of us at this moment,” she said. “We can’t solve this with half measures and more dithering.” She urged everyone to figure out a role to play. And the question, she says, is not “How am I going to fit this into my schedule?” but “How can I change my whole life to address this?”

–elisabeth hoffman

line on the land

April 6, 2014

anadarko protest tom jefferson

Student activists form a line in the road, blocking trucks headed for a frack site in a Pennsylvania state forest. So far, Western Marylanders are trying to negotiate a different line on fracking. //photo by Tom Jefferson

In Pennsylvania, activists draw the line by dragging tree branches into the road and then sitting, slipping their arms inside a massive concrete pipe, holding tight and waiting for the police. For nearly six hours last month, no trucks could pass. Far up the road was a fracking well pad in the Tiadaghton State Forest.

In Maryland, a much more modest line is being negotiated. If fracking were allowed, a large enough setback might help make the difference between relative safety and danger. It’s a circle on a map around a water well or house, school, park or other place within which fracking is not allowed. For skeptics, agnostics or nonbelievers on whether fracking’s risks can be made low enough, the setback is their line on the land.

Based on a draft set of Best Management Practices (BMPs) and existing regulations on conventional gas drilling, recommendations from the Maryland Departments of Natural Resources (DNR) and the Environment (MDE) include 1,000-foot setbacks from private water wells and occupied buildings and 2,000 feet from water intakes for municipal water sources. Of the more than 4,000 public comments on the BMPs, hundreds were critical of these and other setbacks.

Concerned Garrett and Allegany residents who formed Citizen Shale have been pressing for greater protection. At first, all they asked was to protect private wells as much as public wells — with 2,000-foot setbacks.

But when a Duke University study made a case for 1 kilometer (3,280 feet) based on research in active drilling areas in Pennsylvania, Citizen Shale and Paul Roberts, a co-founder of the group and the citizen representative on the state’s Marcellus Shale advisory commission, started insisting on that as the minimum setback. So far, the state departments have not budged. In fact, MDE told the House Environmental Matters Committee in a letter that “available scientific data” doesn’t support a 1-kilometer setback.

That rebuff came despite revelations about a long-forgotten Poolesville incident and a number of new health studies, leaving patience wearing thin for the agnostics, skeptics and nonbelievers alike.

“I don’t see the evidence that this industry can be effectively regulated. But, since we must try, the most important step is to move human activity a protective distance away from the drilling,” Roberts said. “There are public health and safety concerns, and worries about water contamination. It has turned into another full-time job for me — trying to get the state to adopt regulations based on real experiences from other states since, so far, our regulators dispute the available science.”

Here’s what’s on the table:

the case of the communicating wells

From Poolesville came a cautionary tale about the fragility of water sources. The Montgomery County town supplied water to about 5,000 residents with eight municipal water wells. As development started to outpace the water supply, town officials asked state regulators for permission to drill two more wells. Caroline Taylor, who lives in Sugarland Forest outside Poolesville’s border, was concerned enough about the effect on her private well, particularly during droughts, to demand a public hearing. She insisted on baseline testing and wrangled out of the state an agreement: Private wells would be monitored and, if necessary, replaced. Taylor had no interest in being hooked up to the municipal wells in Poolesville. She did not want to buy water by the gallon; she wanted a water well on her land. And the state’s project hydrogeologist, Patrick Hammond — who had studied water sources in the fractured-rock geological region that underlies Maryland west of about Interstate 95 — thought a “zone of interference” could extend even a mile from the town’s well and would need long-term monitoring. In other words, what happened in one well could affect what happened in another a mile away.

And so the municipal wells were drilled in Poolesville. They weren’t pumped at full capacity, however, until the middle of 2007. And two months later, one hot summer day, Taylor’s children turned on the outside faucet and heard a sputtering sound. Air came out but no water. Taylor called Hammond, who analyzed the monitoring data and determined that the town’s pumping activity, as well as that of a nearby golf course, had sucked dry her private well (and interfered with others) 5,000 feet to the south. In the rock formations under Poolesville, the water sources were connected. Poolesville and the golf course paid to drill new wells for the residents who had lost water.

At 300 feet, Taylor’s new well is deeper than her original one, which she described wistfully as “a great well.” The new one has more sediment, she said. “I preferred my 90-foot well. But I prefer water to no water.”

At a February shale advisory commission meeting, Hammond, now retired from MDE but a former consultant for the state’s study of water resources in the fractured-rock regions, stepped forward during the public comment period. The Poolesville case was on his mind, along with his research showing large-capacity water wells (and dewatering for coal mining) could affect private wells 5,000 feet away. He also pointed to a December 2013 report — not peer-reviewed but appearing in the industry trade journal American Oil and Gas Reporter — showing that contamination of water wells was probable within 1,000 feet, possible within 5,000 feet and possible as far as 10,000 feet, once a contaminant is in the aquifer and given certain geological conditions.

What was the rationale for the proposed smaller setbacks, he asked the commissioners. “They seem to be somewhat arbitrary,” he said.

At the March advisory commission meeting, Hammond returned. He said his research, presented at the 2012 Maryland Ground Water Symposium, backs up the findings from the Duke methane study and finds errors in the industry-funded Molofsky study that dismisses fracking’s role in water wells contaminated in Dimock, Pa. Leaky well casings are the most likely culprit for methane contamination in Dimock, he said. Based on his knowledge of the water and rock formations in Western Maryland, he said, 1,000-foot setbacks are insufficient. He has seen water wells affecting each other as far as 5,000 feet and contaminant plumes described in scientific journals extending to about that distance. And whether gas, water or chemicals: “If you can show a hydrological connection, it doesn’t matter what the fluid is.”

no help in annapolis

So far, state officials who work with the advisory commission haven’t commented on the Poolesville case. In a letter to the House Environmental Matters Committee, MDE opposed the bill that would have increased setbacks to 3,280 feet (1 kilometer), saying the larger setback “cannot be supported by the available scientific data and because codifying the setback distance now would preempt and undermine the work of the Departments and the Advisory Commission.”

The letter cited a study published in the bulletin of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists that was noncommittal about fracking’s link to methane contamination, which could be from “preexisting, and previously undiagnosed, methane,” or gas well operations, or “other anthropogenic activity.” Worth nothing is that AAPG is also noncommittal on human contribution to global warming. In 1999, it maintained that “[h]uman-induced global temperature influence is a supposition that can be neither proved nor disproved.” In 2007, it updated its position, acknowledging the rise in CO2 levels in the atmosphere but saying the “membership is divided on the degree of influence that anthropogenic CO2 has on recent and potential global temperature increases.” In 2010, AAPG disbanded its Global Climate Change Committee because it wasn’t advancing the organization’s goals, namely: helping to find oil and gas, creating and saving jobs in petroleum geology, and because “neither side [has] a politically winnable argument.”

Taylor, in the minute allotted for testimony in support of the 1-kilometer setback bill, quickly explained the case of the Poolesville wells. “Our water resources are irreplaceable, so we ask that you do due diligence and get it right.”

Del. Anthony J. O’Donnell, though, emphasized that fracking had nothing to do with the Poolesville case. “My point is this: The problems you had occurred naturally, right? It didn’t occur from hydraulic fracturing. It was a natural occurrence.”

Taylor replied: “Well, unless one would term the pump-down on wells that were drilled in proximity a natural occurrence, it was a man-made occurrence.”

O’Donnell: “But it wasn’t caused by hydraulic fracturing. … These things occur in nature is my point, not necessarily caused by hydraulic fracturing.”

Roberts, also testifying for the bill, persisted: “The only purpose of her testimony is to show that these wells are connected. … The aquifer is connected.”

But O’Donnell was having none of it: “We may blame hydraulic fracturing for some things that occur naturally in nature or are caused by other things. That’s the whole point.”

The bill didn’t even get out of committee.

a point of agreement

Those on the shale advisory commission found something to agree on at their most recent meeting in March: the placement of monitoring wells, which would detect contamination before it reached drinking wells. The closer, the better, several suggested. Otherwise, the drinking water supply becomes the test well.

No word, though, on larger setbacks. “Groundwater flow is much more complicated than any one setback,” John Grace, an MDE groundwater expert, told the shale commissioners. And that’s a huge understatement. After much talk of zones of influence, zones of transport and zones of contribution, Grace explained that the departments have been looking almost exclusively at how to contain surface spills. A sufficient setback, he said, could buy time and keep a surface spill from reaching public water intakes. In Garrett County, though, nearly 75 percent of residents have private water wells. Regarding methane contamination, Richard Ortt Jr., director of the Maryland Geological Survey, told the commission that he has not seen conclusive evidence of methane contamination from fracking, and 3-D mapping of faults and fractures would be very expensive. Grace said, “I don’t know how you can establish a setback for [methane].”

That assessment fits more closely with Cornell University Professor Anthony Ingraffea’s presentation to the commission in February about leaky wells. The question for Ingraffea — who has a PhD in rock fracture mechanics and was previously a consultant to and researcher for the oil and gas industry — is not so much if but when methane (and other substances) will leak and contaminate wells and surface water. It also fits with Zacariah Hildenbrand’s presentation to the commission about his findings of high levels of arsenic and selenium in wells within 3 kilometers (9,842 feet) of natural gas wells in the Barnett Shale in Texas.

“We’re still evaluating this whole issue of methane contamination and the causes of that,” said Christine Conn, director of strategic land planning at DNR.

And these setbacks don’t begin to address health problems showing up in studies near fracking sites, including a “sudden rise in the number of fetal anomalies detected among pregnant women.” (A state epidemiologist in Colorado is investigating that). Or endocrine-disrupting chemicals appearing in surface and groundwater in fracking areas in Colorado. Or a safe distance from gas well explosions, such as the Chevron accident in February in Greene County, Pa., that burned for days, killed an employee and required police to set up a half-mile perimeter (2,640 feet).  “Basically it was like a sonic boom. You could feel a little bit of vibration in the ground, and the loud hissing sound. I knew exactly what it was,” one witness told a Pittsburgh television reporter. “We were probably anywhere from 600-800 yards away down over the hill. You could just literally, it felt like warm air, spring air, coming down over the hillside. It’s very, very hot.”

So far, the only protection in place in Maryland is a liability law passed last year that says the driller is presumed responsible if water is contaminated within 2,500 feet of a frack well — during the first year.

–elisabeth hoffman

vista by crede calhoun

The Garrett County Board of Realtors is concerned that fracking would harm vistas and tourism if local regulations aren’t in place.//photo by Crede Calhoun

The Garrett County Board of Realtors has waded into the fracking frenzy, pressing for sufficient local protections to be in place before drilling starts in Western Maryland.

The group, which represents individual Realtors as well as nine realty companies in the state’s most exposed county if fracking were permitted, says it is concerned about declining property values near fracking wells and gas infrastructure.

“We are not in favor of, nor are we against, fracking. Our main objective is preserving property values and property rights,” said Larry Smith, president of the county Board of Realtors. “We are merely asking that local government look at what’s being proposed by [the Maryland Department of the Environment] and — if there are any gaps or holes — that local government further regulate where MDE leaves off.”

This letter marks the first time a local business organization has said that local government needs to play a stronger role. The Garrett County Chamber of Commerce and the Farm Bureau, in contrast, have lobbied repeatedly in support of fracking for gas.

The Board of Realtors members “feel that promotion of shale gas development needs to also accompany a local commitment to regulation. … [T]hey are inherently linked,” said Paul Durham, government affairs director for the county Board of Realtors. “So far, we haven’t seen that local commitment. … We are calling on our county to start the processes to put the local regulatory framework together so, when drilling occurs, it’s in place.” Putting regulations in place could take a year or more, he said, so local officials should “start the process.”

Durham said the board members have been monitoring government committees studying fracking at the national, state and local levels. They also reviewed numerous academic studies that found a “stigma” associated with properties near fracking wells. One study, led by Ron Throupe at the University of Denver and published in the Journal of Real Estate Literature, showed a 5 to 15 percent decline in “bid values” depending on “the petroleum-friendliness of the venue and proximity to the drilling site.” (A bid value is the amount respondents in a survey would bid on a hypothetical property at a specified distance from a fracking site; it takes into account respondents who say they would not consider bidding on the property. Respondents in Texas were more “petroleum friendly” than those in Florida, the two states used in the survey.)

Over several months, the Realtors’ board of directors studied the issue, got feedback from its members and its government affairs committee and decided to write the letter.

The letter, dated March 17 and addressed to Michael W. Koch, executive director of the county’s Department of Planning and Community Development, said the board is worried about local “regulatory gaps” that could harm “vistas and tourism” as well as local roads, small towns and communities. “We have learned that our community should not expect the state to regulate all of these impacts associated with gas development,” Smith wrote. “Our local officials have been actively promoting shale gas development in Garrett County for a number of years. However, there has been a reluctance to couple that promotional effort with the important local regulatory planning that is needed to properly manage the negative effects of this issue.”

The board, according to the letter, adopted this position: “Garrett County government and our elected representatives should not promote or endorse shale gas development, nor should it occur, until the effects of shale gas development are evaluated and an effective local government regulatory framework is put in place to protect the rights of property owners and the investments they have made.”

A loss of property values, the letter said, would be significant in Garrett where “local services and the county budget depend on a stable property tax base.”

The board’s letter notes that Garrett lacks countywide zoning that might help fill the gaps in regulation and that a 2011 Economic Strategic Development Plan called for “responsible” development of gas drilling along with phased-in zoning. (Garrett has zoning only in the Deep Creek watershed and the towns of Friendsville, Oakland, Accident, Mountain Lake Park, Grantsville, and Loch Lynn Heights. In 2011, Mountain Lake Park passed a ban on fracking.) The letter urges that Garrett County “immediately engage” its departments “to initiate the processes needed to move forward in this area.”

James M. Raley, a county commissioner and member of the state’s Marcellus Shale Safe Drilling Initiative Advisory Commission, said that he would be meeting with the Board of Realtors this week to discuss the letter and that he wants to see documentation about effects on property values. As far as regulatory gaps, he said, “I feel I’ve been working on the gaps with our local [Shale Gas Advisory] Committee.” Although “not a big fan” of countywide zoning, he said, “local gaps are going to have to be handled at the local level.” The county, for example, will have to deal with road damage, emergency preparedness and trucks hauling hazardous materials.

Eric Robison, a member of the executive committee of the county’s Shale Gas Advisory Committee and president of Citizen Shale, said he’s concerned that the gaps won’t be apparent until the state develops regulations. “I feel it’s very important that we look at this. Any issues or impacts that arise [from fracking] should not be borne by the taxpayer, [and] we as a county should be looking to offer the best protections for our tax base and taxpayers,” said Robison, who is also a candidate for county commissioner in District 1. He said that only a countywide zoning plan would be “fair and equitable to everyone.”

-elisabeth hoffman