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Virginians Consider The Risks And Benefits Of Hydraulic Fracturing

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Southwest Virginia sits on the nation's largest stretch of shale. The deep rock formation, called the Marcellus Shale, extends from Virginia to New York.
Sandy Hausman
Southwest Virginia sits on the nation's largest stretch of shale. The deep rock formation, called the Marcellus Shale, extends from Virginia to New York.

If you saw the documentary "Gasland," there's one scene you will probably never forget: A guy from Weld County, Col., -- where gas wells are common –- turns on his tap, flicks his lighter and jumps back as the water bursts into flame.

Later, a state agency reported the man had put his well too close to a naturally occurring gas pocket, but filmmaker Josh Fox used the incident to help make a frightening case against an industrial process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking."

One form of fracking is done in southwest Virginia, in a forest near Abingdon. This is coal country, and there's methane trapped in coal seams, so miners drill a relatively shallow well and pump a mix of nitrogen, water and sand into the rock. The force of that fluid cracks the coal and frees the gas, which is then captured and sent to market by pipeline.

"There's enough gas to supply this country for my kids and my kids' kids," says Greg Kozera, president of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association.

He's pretty excited because part of this state sits on the Marcellus shale, a deep rock formation that extends north to New York. It's the second largest gas field in the world, and some experts say it could meet the nation's energy needs for 100 years. But Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center, fears the consequences.

"There have been fairly well documented instances where people's drinking water wells have been contaminated by methane gas that's leaked from these wells, and there are a lot of questions about whether drinking water is also being contaminated by this fracking fluid," Francisco says.

The fluid she's talking about hasn't been used yet in Virginia, but it's widely used in Pennsylvania on deep wells that go down and across large areas. This fluid contains some cancer-causing chemicals, and when it comes back to the surface, it carries salts and radioactive particles that occur naturally underground.

In Pennsylvania, crews have disposed of it at sewage plants, which are not equipped to clean it. They've dumped the toxic mix into rivers that supply drinking water and flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

A spokesman for Virginia's Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Mike Abbott, says that wouldn't happen here, since the state requires disposal of such wastewater in very deep wells.

"They are well below the water zones. It's impossible for that material to get back up into the aquifer," Abbott says.

There are also concerns about how large scale fracking impacts its neighbors.

"There are roughly 1,000 trips per well, and those trucks are heavier than the usual vehicles on the road, and in some cases they have had, over and over again, accidents that basically close a road," says Kim Sandum, with the Community Alliance for Preservation in Harrisonburg.

And the wells and holding ponds produce air pollution, which could explain why, for the first time in its history, Wyoming failed to meet federal standards for air quality. Fumes from its 27,000 gas wells have, on some days, produced smog levels higher than in Los Angeles.

The industry insists it can produce gas safely. It promises jobs and substantial tax revenues. But with the first permit for deep shale fracking on file in Rockingham County, and the Forest Service considering drilling in the George Washington National Forest, Virginians will have to decide if they feel comfortable letting energy companies frack in the Commonwealth.

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