Largest DC Area Water Provider Opposes Fracking in George Washington National Forest

Concerns over pollution of Potomac River prompt growing opposition; Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties take similar stance

Oil and natural gas companies say they can safely drill for natural gas near the water supply for the nation’s capital.  But the local agencies charged with providing clean drinking water aren’t so sure.  The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, the largest water and wastewater provider in Maryland and the Washington, DC area, has joined with other local water providers in opposing horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing  (“fracking”) for natural gas in the George Washington National Forest until science can prove that the process is safe.

The million-acre national forest, located in Virginia and West Virginia, encompasses headwaters of the Potomac River that supplies much of the DC area’s drinking water.  Approximately half the forest sits atop the Marcellus shale, a natural gas-bearing formation that stretches from upstate New York to Kentucky.  The U.S. Forest Service is considering a land management plan for the forest that could allow horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing for shale gas in the portion of the forest that lies over the Marcellus.

Fracking, as defined narrowly, typically involves the high-pressure injection into a well of fluid mixed with sand and chemicals, which fractures rock formations releasing trapped oil and gas. Fracking is often combined with vertical or horizontal drilling to increase oil and natural gas production. The term “fracking” is generally used as a shorthand for the entire process of drilling and fracturing a well.

If permitted, fracking in the forest would likely involve injecting up to five million gallons of fluid laced with chemicals into each of approximately 250 wells.  The fluid is injected at high pressure to fracture the shale formation and release trapped natural gas. There are hundreds of documented cases of water contamination from oil and natural gas drilling across the country, and the drilling industry frequently warns its investors about inherent risks in the drilling process including leaks, spills and environmental damage.  Heightening the concern is the use of toxic chemicals such as carcinogenic benzene in the drilling process, along with many other chemicals that the drilling industry keeps hidden from the public as trade secrets.  Each well drilled in the forest could produce hundreds of thousands of gallons of wastewater contaminated with naturally-occurring radioactive elements and other toxics.  It is unclear how such wastewater would be safely disposed of.

In its October 15th resolution, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission urges the United States Department of Agriculture and the United States Forest Service “to prohibit horizontal directional drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the George Washington National Forest until such time as a full scientific and environmental review of the process is completed and the process can be demonstrated to be safe to the drinking water supply source in the headwaters of the Potomac River.”

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission provides drinking water to 1.8 million customers in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties, Maryland.  The agency draws much of its water from the Potomac River.  Earlier this year, the elected councils of both Montgomery and Prince George’s counties also issued resolutions opposing drilling until the science is in.

With the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission’s resolution, every major water provider in the DC area now opposes horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the George Washington National Forest until scientific studies can prove that the process is safe. The other providers are DC Water, Fairfax Water and the Army Corps of Engineers’ Washington Aqueduct that provides water to Arlington, Va., part of Fairfax County, Va., Falls Church, Va., and Washington, D.C.

The agencies responsible for providing safe drinking water to the nation’s capital think fracking presents unacceptable risks.  Rather than gamble with drinking water for millions, the Forest Service ought to take fracking off the table for the George Washington National Forest.

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