By Logan Hendrix

Environmentalists worry water quality for more than 10,000 residents of the Rockbridge area may deteriorate if the U.S. Forest Service does not act soon to ban hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in George Washington National Forest soon.

Some Virginians worry that fracking within the George Washington National Forest could contaminate the forest's water. More than 10,000 Rockbridge residents draw their drinking water from sources in the forest. Photo by Shannon McGovern.

Although it is currently permitted, no one has yet engaged in the controversial practice of fracking in the forest.

Virginia Wilderness Committee Field Director Mark Miller said there are several reasons fracking is not a good idea.

“No one really knows what’s going to happen to the water quality,” said Miller. “And in areas where they have done fracking, there have been significant water quality issues.”

Miller also worries that fracking will cause forest fragmentation.

The Maury River lies partially in George Washington National Forest and serves as the water source for some of the Rockbridge area. Other public water is provided by groundwater or wells.

Environmentalists like Miller worry that fracking might allow chemicals to contaminate the Maury River water that many locals drink.

Several such incidents have happened in Colorado and Charleston, W.Va where fracking has contaminated the local water, Miller said. (The Charleston fracking incident is unrelated to last month’s chemical spill in that city.)

The Maury Service Authority provides water for Lexington and Rockbridge County using surface water from the Maury River.

Maury Service Authority Executive Director Jerry Higgins said, “since fracking is conducted deep underground, it is unlikely, though not impossible, for it to affect a surface water source.”

“In that light, I believe that fracking would not pose a significant threat to the Maury River and the Maury Service Authority intake,” said Higgins. “That said, I would be very watchful if that procedure was proposed anywhere nearby and upstream of our intake.”

It has been three years since the U.S. Forest Service proposed to ban fracking in George Washington National Forest. Public comments and concerns have delayed a final decision.

Forest Service Planning Staff Officer Ken Landgraf said,  “No other national forests have a prohibition and right now we don’t have a prohibition.”

If the ban is approved, the George Washington National Forest would be the first national forest to prohibit fracking, said Landgraf.

If fracking is not banned, horizontal hydraulic fracturing would be the method used to extract natural gas out of the Marcellus Shale that lines the western region of Virginia and extends throughout the East Coast of the U.S. This natural gas can then be used by energy industries.

Though the forest is open for natural gas leases, no fracking has yet occurred.

“Right now about 12,000 acres of federal minerals are under lease, but there’s been no activity on that lease,” Landgraf said. “The areas were leased back in 2005 and nothing has happened on them since then.”

Landgraf said a Texas based company, R&R Royalty Ltd., owns most of these mineral rights.

A message was left with R&R Royalty Ltd. to learn if the company plans to drill, but no one from the company returned the call.

Landgraf said he doesn’t know if the company plans to drill on its land, but if it does,  the government would get about 12.5 percent of the profits in royalties.

There is no set date for a final decision on whether to ban fracking, but according to the U.S. Forest Service, final versions of the plan and the Environmental Impact Statement will be released within the next few months.

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