Soloists becoming a chorus in opposition to fracking
By Michael M. Barrick
Note: This is the sixth installment in a series about fracking, (hydraulic fracturing for natural gas), controversial because of its impact on public safety and health, as well as the environment.
WESTON, W.Va. – One at a time, individual citizens are standing before elected officials and fellow citizens to raise their voices in opposition to fracking and related industries. Those single voices are becoming a chorus however, as landowners and others are speaking out more regularly. Here in Lewis County, the county commissioners – who hold meetings weekly – have had citizens appear before them regularly. In nearby Randolph County, a landowner drew a crowd of about 40 to hear him tell his story of haggling with Dominion over his property rights. In neighboring Doddridge County, residents have been demanding protection from the damaging effects of fracking for years. And multiple boards and commissions throughout North Central West Virginia have heard from one man determined to ensure that there are safeguards in place for the loosely-regulated fracking industry.
While there are groups who have been working for years to alert citizens to the public health and safety dangers of fracking, the last few weeks have offered a flurry of activities designed to bring attention to its risks, as fracking operations ramp up throughout North Central West Virginia and beyond. Below are just a few examples of people appealing to their elected officials or neighbors. Some, like the first person, have accepted fracking as inevitable and are looking for ways to monitor and mitigate its impact; others are inclined to oppose fracking altogether.
• On October 2, Steve Garvin’s idea that trucks hauling water for fracking operations contain a dye that could quickly identify the location, direction and flow of a spill in the event of an accident was endorsed by the Clarksburg Water Board, though it did indicate such action would require passage of state law. Garvin has traversed the region, pitching his request to local boards and commissions. Some, like Clarksburg’s water board, support him. Others have yet to commit.
• On October 11, about a dozen or so folks gathered at the farm of Myra Bonhage-Hale for a gathering of various experts who shared their experience with and knowledge of fracking. Bonhage-Hale, who has been in the news for her active opposition to fracking, had just a few days before appeared before the Lewis County Commission, asking them to consider the impact of fracking upon her historic farm.
• On October 14, Weston resident Tom Berlin questioned the same body about the county’s disaster preparedness for the risks posed by fracking.
• On October 16, in the Randolph county town of Mill Creek, Joao Barroso faced a room full of neighbors to alert them to what he characterized as deceptive tactics by Dominion Transmission to gain access to his land for the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, a project needed for the vast volumes of gas being extracted through fracking.
• On October 20, Lewis County resident Barbara Volk also spoke before the Lewis County Commission, expressing concern about the impact of fracking upon her land, her quality of life and the community.
• In Pocahontas County, commissioners there have gone on record as promising land owners they will not allow eminent domain to be used by private industry as a means to acquire land.
• In Doddridge County, West Virginia Host Farms and others show the impact of fracking upon the quality of life for people, the land and the wildlife.
• Wetzel County, meanwhile, is the poster child for those needing a visual demonstration as to the damage caused to people, their land, their homes and the environment in which they live.
In short, residents in every county impacted by fracking are being heard, such as those below.
ALUM BRIDGE, Saturday, Oct. 11
Historic Farm Site for Gathering Fracking Opponents
At Myra Bonhage-Hale’s historic herbal farm, known as La Paix (which is French for “Peace”), about a dozen folks from Lewis, Harrison, Gilmer, Uphsur and other counties joined together – many for the first time – to learn from each other about fracking. Those expert in geology, biologist, botany, and water quality were joined by landowners, students and reporters. Milling about in the light mist outside or through Bonhage-Hale’s home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, the attendees made new friends, gathered additional information, jotted down their thoughts, watched a documentary and took a walk in the woods, discussing how the quiet and solitude offered by the farm may soon be a thing of the past. Indeed, Bonhage-Hale has put the house for sale, not wanting to live with the noise, air and water pollution she is sure will accompany fracking in her remote hollow.
Standing on the front porch as three reporters quizzed her, April Keating, sporting a t-shirt that declared, “Everything is downstream,” asked, “Why should the public not expect the legislature to act in our best interests?” She continued, “But they’re not. They are acting in the interests of the industry. We cannot allow this to be done. We must tell them, ‘Enough is enough.’ Water is connected to everything. Water is life.”
WESTON, Tuesday, Oct. 14
Lewis County Resident Questions County Commission about Disaster Readiness
Appearing before the Lewis County Commission on Oct. 14, Weston resident Tom Berlin raised questions regarding the county’s state of preparedness for the potential impacts of the shale gas and oil industry upon the public’s health and safety, as well as the environment.
He said, “I’d like to address you about my concerns over our state of preparedness in Lewis County for potential emergencies, particularly those involving the upcoming large scale development of shale gas and oil within the county.”
He explained, “As you are well aware, in every location in West Virginia and neighboring states, where shale gas and oil have been developed through horizontal drilling and the accompanying hydro-fracking, there have been documented and substantiated incidents that negatively impact community health and wellbeing. Such incidents include spills of chemicals, including frack water and associated chemicals; local water well pollution; stream pollution, resulting from spills and fires, and resulting in killing of fish and other aquatic life; fires and explosions, resulting in air pollution and the evacuation of local residents; leaks of gas and byproducts of refining, again resulting in air pollution, road closures, and evacuations.
“I will not include a list of specific incidents here, as you can read the news and do the research as well as I can. While the industry may argue that such events are rare, that is little consolation to those individuals and communities negatively impacted by those events.”
Berlin continued, “Since the Lewis County Commission is the body that is the first line of protection for the people of Lewis County and who, I’m assuming, place the safety, health, and wellbeing of the citizens of Lewis County as your highest priority, I am here to inquire about the state of your planning for potential disasters and our community’s level of preparedness.
He noted, “I understand that we have a Local Emergency Planning Committee (LEPC) that is to serve Lewis and Upshur Counties. I also understand that the LEPC recently disbanded the Lewis County HazMat Team. I believe that the County also owns or owned two hazardous materials trailers. News reports indicate that some of the equipment and supplies contained in the trailers are likely not useable due to age, or lack of certification.”
He concluded, “I think that part of the responsibilities of the LEPC and of the Lewis County Commission are, among others, to make sure the county has an emergency response plan, to assure that they are prepared to institute the plan, to make sure that the public is informed of all hazardous chemicals being stored, used, or transported within the county.”
In addition to these remarks, Berlin asked the following questions of the county commissioners.
1. What is the status of the LEPC in the county?
2. What is the status of our County HazMat team?
3. What is the status and condition of the two HazMat trailers?
4. What is the status of our emergency response plan and where is it available to the public?
5. Have you included in the plan consideration of the possible impacts of disastrous events associated with imminent large scale shale gas development in the county?
6. We have been watching the progress of the current natural gas boom as it moved through Ohio, Pennsylvania, West Virginia’s Northern Panhandle, and on into neighboring counties. What have you been doing, proactively, to make sure that Lewis County is prepared to cope with potential disasters of varying types and sizes?
7. Do you believe that the Lewis County Commission and the citizens of Lewis County should have a current and complete list of the various chemicals being used, stored, transported, and disposed of by the energy industry? What are you doing about this?
8. I believe that you, as a county governmental body… have the authority to demand complete transparency from the various members of the energy industry about the chemicals used in the process of fracking and other aspects of the gas development. Do you agree? What will you do about that?
9. Can you assure me and my neighbors that you place the health, safety, and wellbeing of the citizens of Lewis County above considerations of convenience and profit for energy corporations?
10. If you are not prepared to provide detailed answers to these questions today, when could I expect to see answers?
Asked to respond to the reception he received from the commissioners, Berlin shared, “While I was received cordially, and the commissioners assured me numerous times that they are on top of things and that they are beginning to plan, I informed them that this is not a new development and that observers of the industry have known for years that this was coming. I wondered why they were not planning before. According to the commissioners, they are looking at other counties to see what they have done well and where they have failed, and incorporating that into their plans. I pushed them to recognize that our health, safety, and wellbeing take precedence over the convenience and profits of the industry. They assured me that that was the case. I assured them that I was not actually mollified by their assurances, nor by their plan to rely on industry teams to be the front for responses to events. I did volunteer to be a citizen rep on the disaster planning committee.”
MILL CREEK, Thursday, Oct. 16
Randolph County Landowner Takes on Dominion
Joao Barroso, speaking at a small community church at what was intended to be an educational forum but instead turned into a shouting match at times, recounted his dealings with Dominion and their subsidiaries since last spring. He has been doing battle with Dominion because of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline (ACP) that is passing through picturesque Randolph County from its origination point in Harrison County, W.Va. on its path to North Carolina. The pipeline is directly related to fracking. Dominion acknowledges its website, the “Atlantic Coast Pipeline is … a … new interstate natural gas pipeline system from the Marcellus and Utica production areas to Virginia and North Carolina markets.”
Barroso outlined for those in the audience what that meant in reality for a landowner. He vehemently disputed the company’s claims that it would improve the environment of his land or be fair to him economically.
According to Barruso, he first heard of the ACP in April or June. In mid-July, Dominion sent a letter to let him know that the company was planning a pipeline in his area and they intended to survey his property. He revealed, “I was contacted by a gentleman, in an extremely unprofessional way. His correspondence was terse. When I started asking him questions, he tried to intimidate mentioning eminent domain and the importance of the survey.”
Over the next month or so, he exchanged emails asking for answers. He said, “I received no reply to any of my detailed questions. I continued to refuse permission to them to access my property.”
Months of unproductive correspondence continued said Barruso until in early October, he wrote a letter to Russell Johnson, a dominion manager, for land leasing and rights-of-way. Johnson answered that he was “pass[ing] it along to the Dominion land group assigned to this project and ask that an appropriate follow up be provided to [me] promptly.” Barruso had yet to receive a response at the time of his remarks in Mill Creek.
According to Barruso, he is entitled to the following:
• A clear description of the survey, meaning, what will be done on my property, not merely what may be done;
• A clear map showing all possible routes now being considered;
• A clear detailed map of my property, showing where all possible route/s may fall and how said route or routes may affect my property;
• Details as to the characteristics and installation procedures for said pipeline;
• Details as to what will be done on my property, by whom, what equipment may eventually enter my property, etc., and what care and remedial measures Dominion will take, before, during and after said work;
• Draft text of easement agreement;
• A legal document issued by Dominion stating clearly that if and when I grant Dominion and/or its representatives permission to access my property and do said survey, Dominion will be fully and solely responsible for any and all disturbance, accidents and damages, including but not limited to surveyors, equipment, land (above and below surface,) flora and fauna, water (creek, springs, ponds,) notable sites, as well as other persons, including property leasees, my guests and representatives, myself, other people/professionals who may happen to be on the property, etc.;
• Draft of any legal document that will be proposed regarding negotiations, if relevant;
• Since I understand this pipeline is larger than most, I would like to receive from Dominion studies and literature that clearly reflect previous experience with similar projects, their environmental impact, risks, what accidents may occur and how they will be prevented and dealt with, response time in case of explosions, leakages, fires, etc.;
• A document that clearly states how Dominion will handle and call upon itself responsibility for damages and accidents that may occur;
• A list of other property owners affected by this project in at least Randolph County, so that I may evaluate how, as a community, landowners and residents are responding to this project, and what their impressions, experiences and decisions may be so far;
• A detailed list of what Dominion considers benefits that result from this project, both to the local community and individual landowners and other affected parties.
Having to ask his questions demonstrates that Dominion is not responsive to the very people that will be most impacted by it, argued Barruso.
While he is waiting for his answers, he told his neighbors, he wanted them to consider how they should be compensated by Dominion should the pipeline go through their communities. He shared, “For gas pipelines and similar, when projects like these go ahead, companies usually lease, from affected parties, only a portion of the land that is affected; in some cases, tracts of land may be purchased. The conditions negotiated do not usually favor the affected party! It’s time for this to change.”
Specifically, he argued, “These pipelines are laid and remain operational for decades. So, why not ask these companies to pay monthly leases? How much gas is transported through our properties? Make them pay for it according to volume, times linear feet of laid pipeline. A 12” pipeline is one thing, a 42” pipeline is different, and a 32” pipeline is yet another thing. Clearing of land and cutting is different; the risk of explosions and leakages can have very different impacts, same with pollution, noise, disturbances of all kinds, etc. The lease should/could be paid monthly or annually according to the volume of natural gas being moved through the land being leased for the full life-time of the pipeline! On top of that, there should be an initial payment based on land used, work duration, and more. What we have to ask for is a share in the profits; we become, so to speak, “shareholders” or “partners” in this venture. We may even ask that the lease may be updated according to the price the product is sold to the end user. If the consumer sees the cost of gas increase, the royalties for land lease increase as well accordingly.”
WESTON, Monday, Oct. 20
Lewis County Resident Shares Concerns with County Commissioners
Barbara Volk, who lives about 10 miles west of the county seat, went immediately to the point when she began, “I am a land owner in Lewis County and I feel that my concerns about fracking are being ignored.”
Volk acknowledged, “I am not going to present you with scientific studies or evidence as there are other people far more qualified for that, and many independent studies are available,” but added, “I am however going to express my concerns about the dangerous and detrimental effects of fracking, that I have seen personally on the quality of life that I value.” She shared, “On September 16 I attended a public meeting at Jackson’s Mill. This was not a meeting, but very controlled sales pitch by Consol Energy. We were shepherded through their poster board presentations where we were told, ‘This is what we are doing.’ There was no public discourse, no public question and answer period, and when I did finally pin down a representative, I was out right lied to about the number of wells planned for our county.”
Volk continued, “I left that meeting feeling like we were told, you are ignorant, keep your place and do as you are told. It was insulting and offensive.”
She told the commissioners, “I am self employed, and my farm is all I have. Every spare penny that I earn and all of my time goes into re-establishing and caring for the native plants that this state is so well known for and which are mostly gone. My farm is part of the forestry stewardship program, designed to preserve and improve the quality and health of our forests.
Noting that she was part of a global network of organic farms, she said, “I have had people from all over the country and several from Europe come here to learn how to work with horses, garden organically, and harvest both food and medicine from the forest.”
She expressed concern as well regarding the environmental impacts of fracking. “I am concerned about the loss of clean water, the air pollution and the effect it will have on my health, the health of my animals and the health of my soil, where I grow the food that I eat and the medicines that I use. I am concerned about the noise pollution and the light pollution. I am extremely concerned about the loss of the quality of life that I have here and which is so important to me. I am concerned about the loss of property value and the fact that insurance companies are refusing to insure properties near frack sites.”
Volk noted, “I am not alone with these concerns. I have been to some of the counties already fracked, and have seen the polluted streams, heard the jet engine compressors, and seen the flares required to release the pressure. I have seen the destruction of the roads and witnessed some of the accidents.”
She also challenged core argument of fracking companies and proponents. “There is so much emphasis placed on job creation. Well my livelihood is dependent on my living in central West Virginia. I travel all the way to Wheeling in the north and Monroe County in the south east. My livelihood is dependent on being able to drive on safe roads. Just this week on Rt. 33 I was overtaken by three gas company pick ups, two of which passed in a double yellow line. I was driving the speed limit and I can only guess what speed they were traveling. I no longer drive on Rt. 18 because of the number of close calls I have had with oil and gas pick ups and associated vehicles. I can’t avoid driving on Rt. 33.”
Volk remarked, “I am concerned that Lewis County will become a polluted industrial site which will negate any possibility of eco-tourism, one of the truly sustainable industries that could be developed and is flourishing in many areas. The destruction that I have witnessed is not hearsay, is not the sour complaints of ‘tree huggers;’ it is destruction that has very real effects on very real residents of West Virginia.”
Before finishing, Volk challenged the commissioners with a few questions, saying, “I challenge all of you to go up to Doddridge County and see for yourself. Don’t take my word for it and don’t take the oil and gas industries’ word for it. See for yourself. Become informed.” She closed, “So I have a few questions for you:
1. Have any of you been to Doddridge County, met with the residents, and seen what it really means to live with fracking? If not are you willing to do so?
What are the actual number of jobs that you expect to be created for Lewis county residents?
2. What steps are being taken to ensure our safety on the roads with the increase of truck traffic and drivers willing to pass on double lines?
3. What provisions are being made for homeowners who will be affected by loss of land value and insurance?
4. Are you willing to support a moratorium on fracking and all related activities until there can be a review of the Independent studies on the negative impacts of fracking?
5. Will you support a series of public forums where the residents of the county can have access to this information in a forum that is a true question and answer session, not just a company sales pitch?
It remains to be seen if these individual voices, as they are joined by others, will have the impact they desire. Yet, there is no denying they are raising challenging questions – and sounding more like a chorus than soloists.
© Michael M. Barrick / Appalachian Chronicle, 2014. Follow on Twitter @appchronicle