More than a year after a Houston energy company backed away from a natural gas drilling application in Bergton, local residents are still worried that Carrizo Oil and Gas will return to northern Rockingham County — and they’re preparing for it.
Dozens of concerned citizens crammed into the Bergton Community Center on Tuesday evening to hear early results of an ongoing project testing water quality in the area. The data will establish a baseline in the event that fracking becomes a reality locally.
Short for “hydraulic fracturing,” fracking involves pumping millions of gallons of water, sand and toxic chemicals underground at high pressure to create cracks in the rock, allowing natural gas to be collected.
Monthly since last fall, two professors and four students from Eastern Mennonite University have been testing the water from four creeks and four private wells near the proposed Bergton gas well.
The group will continue testing for the next year. Experts recommend analyzing local water for two years before fracking begins, which makes a disruption, and its cause, easier to determine.
“This testing is not just for this community,” said Doug Graber Neufeld, EMU biology department chair and one of the two scientists heading up the project. “There’s a lot of concern in communities all across the nation.”
Carrizo backed out of Bergton after facing roadblocks at both the county and state levels.
In April 2010, the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy was in the final stages of reviewing a state permit Carrizo submitted that would allow natural gas exploration, but the application never went through. According to the state agency’s website, Carrizo still has yet to secure any permit in Virginia.
On the local level, the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors tabled Carrizo’s request for a special use permit to explore for natural gas in February 2010. The request remains tabled.
Because of local resistance, the company backed off and a company official claimed Carrizo wouldn’t bother trying to get approval to operate in Virginia until another company obtained a permit. To date, no other companies have applied for a permit from the state to search for gas in the Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches from New York to West Virginia and lies under parts of western Virginia.
If the well were to be built in Bergton, the first drilling and high-volume fracking along Virginia’s section of the Marcellus would follow. Fracking has been occurring elsewhere in Virginia since the 1950s, however, mostly in the southwest portion of the state via coalbed methane wells.
Other states, including Pennsylvania and West Virginia, have allowed Marcellus fracking.
If Carrizo were to get a green light from the county and state, and were to find ample natural gas, it would then seek a permit to extract gas.
Company officials have secured leases for gas drilling and fracking on more than 13,000 acres in the Bergton area, mostly during their original sweep through the central Valley prior to most local residents’ knowledge of the practices.
Although the company maintains that fracking is safe, local advocates say the practice poses significant environmental and health risks. They point to various incidents that have occurred in other states due to fracking. For example, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection fined an energy company almost $100,000 in 2010 for allowing fracking fluid to overfill a wastewater pit and contaminate a town’s watershed
What’s worse for the proposed Bergton well site is that it sits on a floodplain, according to Kim Sandum, executive director of Harrisonburg-based Community Alliance for Preservation.
Plus, “Hundreds of trucks are needed per well,” she said at the community meeting Tuesday. “It’s very common for a rural road to crumble.”
She listed various other reasons why fracking in Bergton would be detrimental, including tightened staff numbers in the state monitoring agency for such wells and the likelihood that the county wouldn’t be able to recover all costs in the event of a mishap.
“If there’s an accident, who knows how far it might spread,” Claudine Spence, who’s lived in Bergton for the past 25 years, noted after the meeting.
Bergton resident Marge Peevy organized an anti-fracking advocacy group — Land, Air, Water Stewardship-Action Group — in response to the situation.
“We just did not want to have the little town of Bergton become a commercialized gas drilling operation … with the risks that are obvious,” she said.
She said the fear of fracking in the area is still “very real” to local residents.
“Its just got people really concerned,” said Bruce Lundeen, Harrisonburg resident and a member of Peevy’s group.
He said the city could be negatively affected, as well.
“The whole watershed is what we’re concerned about,” he added. “They’re really taking our future … and destroyed our environment, our health.”
During the meeting, Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network, brought up the George Washington National Forest’s draft management plan, which has become intimately linked with fracking.
More than 53,000 public comments poured in after the draft’s release in May 2011, with more than 95 percent in support of a ban on horizontal drilling, which would effectively prohibit fracking in Bergton.
But in March, forest service officials “said they’d been getting a huge amount of pressure from the gas industry,” Wofford said. The forest service has yet to release the final draft after several push-backs, most recently citing a desire to wait until after the presidential election.
Contact Candace Sipos at 574-6275 or firstname.lastname@example.org