September 3, 2013

Fracking Explosion in West Virginia

Wild Virginia hosted a trip to see a hydrofracturing (fracking) site last spring in West Virginia.   We wanted to see the operations first-hand and talk to landowners directly impacted by the industry because this drilling is being considered for our George Washington National Forest.  We came back appalled by what we saw and learned from landowners. Recently,  the story in West Virginia took an even darker turn.

On July 7, 2013, in Doddridge County, West Virginia, several men were operating a hydrofracturing rig, the very rig we viewed on our visit, when two large tanks exploded in an enormous fireball of methane gas, severely burning five workers. Two of the men, Jason Mearns, 37, of Beverly, and Tommy Paxton, 45, of Walton, would later die from their horrific injuries.

The fracking site was closed for one month to give Denver-based Antero Resources Corperation an opportunity to submit a revised account of what caused the explosion.  (The first account was deemed insufficiently forthcoming by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.)

Fracking has become a massively profitable extractive industry.  Conveniently exempt from federal laws like the Clean Water and Clean Air Acts and the Safe Drinking Water Act, which were designed to protect the American people and their environment, fracking is a mechanized means of forcing natural gas from deep underground to the earth’s surface where it can be harvested, shipped and sold.

The process begins with the construction of heavy-duty roads to access the drill site and to accommodate the continuous caravans of massive industrial vehicles needed to supply the millions of gallons of water and toxic chemicals, that when forced underground, split the stone below to release the gas. The fleet of tanker trucks runs continuously, on both private and public roads, regardless of previous traffic patterns and the habits of local populations. Two boys, ages 6 and 10, were crushed to death last spring when a fracking tanker overturned on their car near Clarksburg.

After “overburden,” such as forested wildlife habitat, is cleared away and destroyed, a towering drilling rig is erected and a hole is bored thousands of feet into the earth, down to the ancient seabed wherein is locked the natural gas,  a byproduct of eons of slow organic decay. To access the horizontal layering of the shale deposits, outlying drills are pushed out to the side of the main bore and then a tidal rush of water, mixed with a stew of dozens of chemicals ranging from hydrochloric acid (to induce fissures in the rock) to ethanol (a “surfactant”) to tetrakis hydroxymethyl-phosphonium sulfate (a poison to kill corrosive bacteria), is squeezed with enormous pressure down the pipes and made to shatter the surrounding rock, releasing the treasure buried therein.

The natural gas is then sucked from the fractured stone and withdrawn, along with the contaminated water, to the surface. The gas is collected for processing and sale while the toxic water, or “flowback,” must according to the EPA be “treated prior to discharge into surface water or underground injection… Treatment is typically performed by wastewater treatment facilities.” What treatment facilities that exist in the impoverished hills of Appalachia were designed to treat household waste, not industrial effluent, but as mentioned previously, fracking is not subject to federal statutes protecting public water supplies.

Today across Appalachia, stretches of verdant countryside are being turned into industrial wastelands to facilitate fracking, perennially aglow with floodlights and flare-offs, fortified with barbed wire and armed security personnel, and perennially serviced by gigantic machines whose labored grinding through the hills and hollows can go on for years, or until nothing else can be wrung from the earth.

West Virginia, whose official motto translates as “Mountain Men Will Always Be Free,” subscribes to “split estate” laws, relicts of medieval England that formerly reserved the mineral rights of all land, public and private, to the distant monarch. Today, these statutes are being used to deny ownership of subsurface resources to those mountain men who happen to dwell atop them, allowing outside interests to effectively assert a legal claim to the natural gas below thier lands and do whatever it takes above ground on their land, to reach them.

Hydraulic fracturing is currently being considered by the USFS in the George Washington National Forest.  We must not let this happen.   Please sign this petition calling on the Secretary of Agriculture to limit any and all plans for drilling in the GWNF.  Fracking is flatly dangerous to air, water and, as West Virginia has recently and painfully seen, to workers on the drill sites.  

Online Petition at

story courtesy of Bill Funk