Climate

West Virginia Plans To Frack Beneath Ohio River, Which Supplies Drinking Water To Millions

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And aerial view of the Ohio River between Jeffersonville, Indiana and Louisville, Kentucky.

Nine citizen and environmental groups are urging West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to reconsider his plans to let companies drill for oil and natural gas underneath the Ohio River, citing concerns that drilling and fracking could contaminate the drinking water supply and increase the risk of earthquakes in the region.

In a letter sent to the governor this month, the coalition of Ohio- and West Virginia-based groups said Tomblin’s Department of Environmental Protection has not proved that it can adequately protect the Ohio River, which supplies drinking water to more than 3 million people. The groups cited drilling currently taking place in a state-designated wildlife area, which some have complained is unacceptably disrupting the nature preserve, and a chemical spill in January that tainted the drinking water supply for 300,000 people.

“The well-documented deficient enforcement capability of the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas has been on public display for years,” the letter reads. “How are we ever to believe that the state has the political will, technical capability and community commitment to guarantee that adequate controls, timely supervision and, when needed, ruthless enforcement would occur on well pads that close to the Ohio River?”

On Friday, Tomblin’s administration opened up the process for companies to bid on oil and gas leases located 14 miles underneath West Virginia’s section of river, which also acts as a natural border with Ohio. The bids would allow for companies to use the controversial process of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to stimulate the wells.

State Commerce Secretary Keith Burdette told the Associated Press that drilling would be necessary because “budgets are very tight.” Indeed, the AP pointed out that the state has already received a $17.8 million bid from Triad Hunter LLC, which would also include 18 percent in royalties for the state on the oil that’s extracted.

It remains to be seen how big of a risk to the drinking water supply fracking would pose to the Ohio River. As Burdette told the AP, some leases under the Ohio River date back 25 years — though it’s likely that those wells used conventional drilling, and not fracking. Environmental advocates worry that fracking poses a bigger risk to water supplies than conventional drilling because of the chemicals used in the process, and the large amount of contaminated wastewater it produces. Science on the issue has been all but definitive, and the EPA is currently in the process of conducting a study that would clarify the technique’s impact on drinking water.

For the coalition of groups opposing the practice, though, drinking water is not the only concern. In their letter, the groups said that there is a fault line located near West Virginia’s proposed drilling site, and that drilling would increase the risk of earthquakes in the region. Though drilling itself is not linked to quakes, scientists have found evidence “directly linking” earthquakes to wastewater injection, a process widely used during fracking to dispose of large amounts of wastewater underground.

“Where one state decides to drill should never put residents of their own state or another state in harm’s way,” the letters reads. “The exploitation of limited natural gas resources under the river could degrade our water quality, reduce the recreational and aesthetic value of the river, and cause health problems for millions of people.”

After the Ohio River bidding is done, West Virginia commerce officials reportedly said the state would look to other river tracts and a wildlife management area for further drilling.