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Drinking water for millions - including D.C. - at risk without stronger BLM fracking rules

Amy Mall

Posted November 28, 2012

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The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) in the Department of the Interior is in the process of developing new rules for fracking on more than 750 million acres of public and private land across the country. A final rule could be released as early as December.

The current rules are woefully inadequate and need to be dramatically strengthened to protect health and the environment. Even Interior Secretary Ken Salazar has said that the current rules “….are in many ways outdated …”

BLM has the opportunity and obligation to be a leader in regulating fracking. But the BLM’s current draft for new rules is too weak. The rules need to be strengthened in many ways that NRDC has detailed in previous blogs, such as requiring companies to disclose the chemicals they use before fracking begins; requiring baseline water testing in an area before fracking begins in order to determine if contamination has occurred; establishing the highest standards for well design and construction; and prohibiting the use of open air pits to store or dispose of toxic fracking waste. 

The stakes are high – fracking comes with serious risks and stronger rules are essential to protect the health and safety of millions of people nationwide.

It’s not only wildlands like the pristine mountain ranges and magnificent red rock canyons in the western U.S. that fall under the category of “public lands.” It’s true that BLM’s new rules will govern oil and gas fracking in California, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico. And protecting those lands for wildlife and wilderness qualities is critical.

Drinking water for millions at risk – including DC & other major metro areas

But in addition, the rules will also apply to national forests nationwide that are the sources of drinking water for tens of millions of Americans. Priority drinking watersheds, and other sensitive natural, scenic and recreation areas, should be made off limits to fracking in BLM’s new rule. The toxic waste that can spill or leak, dangerous air pollutants, harms to streams and forests, and threats to drinking water from contamination in watersheds that serve millions of people are too severe to allow oil and gas development to proceed in places like this. A map below illustrates federal lands and their importance to surface drinking water supplies.

Take, for example:

Washington, D.C. The George Washington National Forest in Virginia is currently a target for leasing, yet this area is home to the headwaters of the Potomac and James Rivers. The waters in this forest feed the drinking water supplies for approximately four million people, including all of Washington, D.C., northern Virginia, and Richmond (see our map below), and more than 260,000 residents of the Shenandoah Valley. While the U.S. Forest Service has proposed keeping horizontal drilling and fracking out of here, its plan has yet to be finalized, and would still allow vertical drilling with fracking in nearly the entire area if it is approved. Not only are the risks of fracking here far too great – whether horizontal or vertical – but the proposed new BLM rules are inadequate to  properly safeguard the drinking water resources that depend on this forest from any kind of fracking that might move forward here, regardless of the outcome of the Forest Service’s new plan.

Western Colorado  The White River National Forest in Colorado, where oil and gas leasing is in the works, is home to many important drinking water sources. Its crystal clear streams provide drinking water to many local communities, including Glenwood Springs, Silt, New Castle, Carbondale, Redstone, Vail, Aspen, Basalt, Eagle, Gypsum, and Rifle. And it is also the source of most of the water in the Upper Colorado River—which ultimately sustains 30 million people downstream in Arizona, Nevada and California. Additionally, the White River National Forest is the most visited national forest in the nation because it is home to some of America’s most spectacular wild beauty, unparalleled outdoor recreation opportunities including Aspen and Vail, incredibly valuable wildlife habitat and prized hunting and fishing spots.

Athens, Ohio - The Wayne National Forest is facing oil and gas leasing of more than 3,000 acres. Most of the acreage lies directly along the Hocking River and the underlying aquifer that serves as the sole source of drinking water for more than 70,000 people in four Ohio counties: Athens, Hocking, Perry, and Morgan. This includes major metropolitan areas like Athens and Nelsonville, and Ohio University.  According to the City of Athens, the sole-source aquifer is shallow, averaging a maximum of 60 feet below ground level, and is therefore “especially susceptible to pollution from surface level and near-surface level contamination.” The Burr Oak Regional Water District opposes any fracking near the aquifer, saying that contamination would pose a “serious and catastrophic health risk to the people and communities that depend upon this water source.”

The BLM has more work to do in order to deliver a stronger and more, protective fracking rule to help safeguard the health of the millions of people and the more than 700 million acres across the country it will govern. From California to Virginia, Michigan to Texas, and the many places in between,  our drinking water sources, communities, and wild places are too precious for anything less.

Here is a map of areas in the Washington, D.C. metropolitan region that are primarily served by water from the Potomac River; this map does not include areas in Frederick County, MD:

DC Metro Service Areas for web.JPG


And here is a map of federal lands nationwide and their importance to surface drinking water supplies, based on data from the U.S. Forest Service "Forests to Faucets" program:

FedLands Map w drinking water importance wo layers.jpg 

Corrected version posted on November 30, 2012.

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Michael BerndtsonNov 28 2012 03:27 PM

Amy, I have a question - does BLM conduct land use economic analysis on federal lands it manages? For example, do they look at the value of a property for use as a watershed or a recreational area versus the value for resource exploitation. I understand the BLM was pretty much setup as the government's owner representative to collect fees from dams, lumber, mining, etc on federal lands. However, that was when the population was maybe 50 million and environmental protection wasn't even an issue. It seems to me that land used as a watershed and recreational area would far exceed the economic benefit of shale gas. Shale gas requires a large surface footprint for operations. Access restrictions would probably last a generation, lessening economic benefit from recreation during a long period of time. Not to mention the potential for watershed impact.

Amy MallNov 28 2012 03:49 PM

Hi Michael: The BLM is required by the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) to conduct environmental analysis that determines the impacts, both costs and benefits, of different alternatives on the environment and public health--and to do this in a transparent way that allows the public to have input on the agency's analaysis and preferred alternative. The BLM is also required to manage the land for multiple uses, not only for energy development. NRDC has sued the BLM in the past for not fully complying with NEPA and other requirements for oil and gas leasing. There is a research group called Headwaters Economics that has looked at the value of protected lands in areas with energy development.

Michael BerndtsonNov 28 2012 04:49 PM

Thanks Amy and very interesting stuff. No wonder there has been a big push for state's rights for shale gas development on federal lands. Now it makes sense - to get around federal regulation.

I checked out Headwaters Economics site and was very much impressed. They seem to be looking into the exact issue of my previous comment. Unspoiled land used for recreation, farming, ranching etc may have greater economic value for the greater good of the locals and country - then shale oil and gas exploitation.

A silly but maybe appropriate analogy is a city park like Central Park in New York or Lincoln Park in Chicago. The land could be sold off or used for something else. However, as a park the adjacent property becomes more sought after, therefore more valuable. The feds should be thinking the same way about federal lands before selling off these lands or promoting resource development.

D DNov 28 2012 08:53 PM

everyone is complaining about chemicals and crap and testing and saying fracking is going to ruin the water supply. fracking is not going to cause any problems. how about the dumb activists look at all the run off from farms, people throwing trash into the river and using it as a septic tank. there is your pollution problem. so all the activists can stop complaining and go back to doing drugs because smoking is sooo good for the environment too

Amy MallNov 29 2012 04:27 PM

DD: We agree that agricultural runoff and sewage are harmful threats to rivers and other water bodies, and we are working to protect them from these threats also.

Lauren SwainNov 29 2012 06:07 PM

Amy, thanks for including the White River National Forest in your areas of concern. Environmental groups are working hard to save roadless areas and the Thompson Divide from drilling plans.

Are you sure that the White River National Forest also contains reservoirs supplying water to the Front Range communities of Denver and Aurora? The BLM manages areas containing these water supplies as well, but I believe they are in the Pike National Forest. You are correct that they have been threatened by leasing plans, which the BLM recently deferred, at least temporarily, in response to intense public and environmental-community outcry. We are now pushing for a master leasing plan so that these water supplies will be permanently protected from the hazards of fracking.

Amy MallNov 30 2012 12:15 PM

Dear Lauren: Thank you for the comment. Dillon Reservoir is surrounded by the White River National Forest and provides water to Denver. In addition, other reservoirs that are located outside of the WRNF have intake pipes that take water from the WRNF. However, I want to clarify that the land around Dillon Reservoir is not currently targeted for oil and gas leasing and I have updated the blog post. Please feel free to send me any information on the Pike-San Isabel NF.

Amy MallDec 27 2012 03:04 PM

Lauren: I have added new information to the blog regarding the threats of oil and gas leasing near Denver's water sources here:

Comments are closed for this post.


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