On April 6, Chris Bolgiano will pack up the camping gear and leave her Fulks Run home for a weekend in West Virginia. If such a trip conjures images of whitewater rafting or relaxing in a mountain cabin, think again.
Bolgiano is taking an overnight group trip with Wild Virginia, a non-profit environmental organization based in Charlottesville. The group is headed to see a high-volume hydraulic fracturing site in Doddridge County.
Participants will tour the town during the day, speak with locals, and then camp out the night on a host farm located near the industry. The trip is recommended for anyone who wants to learn about the effects fracking can have on a community, and is intended to be informative, not fun.
Bolgiano, for one, is ready.
“I’m expecting to see a large, smelly, unattractive, industrial site,” she says.
Problems With Fracking
Bolgiano, a published environmental historian and retired university librarian, has been interested in hydraulic fracturing, commonly known as fracking, for the past few years. She has researched the topic and spoken with individuals directly affected, but believes it is important to see a fracking site firsthand.
“As a writer, I’m committed to authenticity, so I need to experience it for myself,” she explains. “I never rely on books alone, I rely on fieldwork.”
Fracking describes the process in which a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped deep underground, cracking rock layers to unleash natural gas to be used for energy. Some proponents of fracking say natural gas is a “greener” alternative to other fossil fuels, pointing out that it is cleaner-burning than oil or coal.
However, high-volume fracking is a large-scale version of the process that requires millions of gallons of water, and often uses a newer technology known as horizontal drilling, which pumps the mixture down vertically and then out the sides.
According to Bolgiano, these high-volume sites can alter a town’s social and environmental structure by increasing traffic, noise, lights and air pollution. Taking these facts into consideration, she doubts high-volume fracking is better for the environment than any other fossil fuel industry. And she advises others to be wary of sources that try to group the different types of fracking together.
“Horizontal drilling is unique,” she says. “It’s not your grandfather’s gas well.”
Bolgiano is also concerned that high-volume fracking sites leave a community’s drinking water vulnerable to contamination, either by overspills, flooding or unintended cracking.
“When you’re cracking the ground [at that level], what’s to prevent the cracks from spreading further?” she asks. “How can you ever be sure you’re only going to crack what you want?”
Additionally, she thinks gas companies should reveal the chemicals used in the fracking mixture - though rules do not require it.
“[Companies] are protected by law,” she says. “It’s considered a trade secret.”
The Latest Controversy
As a proponent of solar energy, Bolgiano hopes Rockingham County residents will never have to deal with the problems high-volume fracking has created for some of their West Virginian neighbors.
Fracking gained major attention in Rockingham County in 2010, when Carrizo Oil and Gas Inc. applied for a permit to drill in Bergton. Protest from the community led the company to withdraw its application, but some residents have remained attentive to the situation. As Bolgiano points out, “that’s not to say [the company] couldn’t come back.”
The latest controversy, however, involves George Washington National Forest, part of which crosses into Rockingham County. The GWNF is currently working on a new Land Management Plan, which will set guidelines for the park for years to come. The plan was originally reported to include a ban on horizontal drilling, but now being debated is the decision on whether the ban will be included.
Ken Landgraf, a planning officer at the U.S. Forest Service office in Roanoke, says he’s received many comments supporting the ban, but was also urged by other groups and individuals to explore “different techniques or controls” that might allow horizontal drilling to be carried out in a safe way.
Landgraf adds that the time for submitting comments to the office has passed, and says the new plan will be released in June.
Bolgiano hopes the ban will be included, and points out that the Appalachian forests were almost destroyed in the southeast in the late 1800s due to excessive timbering. After the effort put into re-growing the forests, she finds it foolish to risk damaging them now.
“Given our history with the national forests in the Southeast, why would we do the same thing again?” she asks. “Have we learned nothing?”
Contact Katie King at 574-6271 or firstname.lastname@example.org.