This week, the Maryland State Senate took a major step toward protecting the drinking water of millions of people in the Washington, DC area and western Maryland by passing a statewide ban on hydraulic fracturing. The measure, already approved by the Maryland House of Delegates, now heads to Gov. Larry Hogan for his approval. The Governor said earlier this month that he endorsed the bill because “the possible environmental risks of fracking simply outweigh any potential benefits.”
Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, typically involves the underground injection at high pressure of a mix of water, sand, and chemicals to fracture rock formations and release trapped oil or natural gas.
While coverage of the issue has focused primarily on impacts to western Maryland where fracking would be most likely to occur, Partnership for Policy Integrity and other environmental organizations recently wrote letters to four major DC area drinking water providers highlighting the risks to water quality for millions of downstream residents.
The letters noted that drilling companies have been interested in fracking in the western portion of the state that lies atop the Marcellus shale, a vast, natural gas-bearing formation that extends from upstate New York to Kentucky. The western Maryland region also encompasses headwaters of the Potomac River, the major source of drinking water for millions in the Washington, DC area. PFPI and other groups expressed concern that contaminants associated with fracturing including toxic and secret chemicals could migrate downstream and jeopardize drinking water supplies.
Several years ago, each of the four major DC area water providers raised concerns that fracking in the George Washington National Forest could contaminate the DC area’s water supply. The forest encompasses the Potomac’s headwaters in Virginia and West Virginia.
The risk of unknown toxic chemicals to downstream water users are not just hypothetical. In 2014, a chemical spill from a storage tank near Charleston, West Virginia contaminated the Elk River and left hundreds of thousands of people without drinking water for days. The chemical involved, Crude MCHM, was used in the coal industry, and its health effects were largely unknown. The spill traveled at least 200 miles downstream leading Cincinnati to shut down its intakes on the Ohio River. Areas of western Maryland that could be fractured are approximately 200 miles upstream of the Washington, DC area.
The environmental groups sent the letters (see links) to Fairfax Water that supplies water to nearly two million people in Fairfax County, Virginia; DC Water that supplies water for about 600,000 residents of the nation’s capital; Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission that distributes water to 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George’s Counties in Maryland; and Washington Aqueduct, a division of the Army Corps of Engineers that provides drinking water on a wholesale basis to utilities in Arlington, Virginia, Falls Church, Virginia and the District of Columbia. These utilities then distribute the water to approximately a million people who live in, work in, or visit these jurisdictions.
Since 2015, Maryland has had a moratorium on horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing in the state’s portion of the Marcellus shale. Without legislative action, the moratorium will expire this year. But Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan is expected to sign the fracking ban into law. The action would be the first time that a state with natural gas reserves has enacted a ban on fracking passed by a legislature and signed by a governor. In 2014, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo banned high-volume hydraulic fracturing by executive action. In 2012, the state of Vermont banned fracking legislatively, but the state has no known gas resources and does not produce oil.
Maryland’s vote is a big victory for drinking water in the DC area and throughout the Free State.
Photo: Savage River, Garrett County, Maryland. Credit: Linda Carroll