The Post: Athens residents unsure of WV fracking proposal

Fracking upstream underneath the Ohio River has Athens residents worrying about their water supply.

West Virginia hopes to expand its hydraulic fracturing endeavors to include sites beneath the Ohio River, leaving some Athens County residents worrying about the safety of their water.

West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin opened bids earlier this month, giving the green light for investors to explore hydraulic fracturing activity, commonly known as fracking, one mile under the Ohio River.

Tomblin has proposed fracking in a 14-mile stretch under the river along Monroe, Washington and Belmont counties in Ohio.

Companies have already fracked near the river in those areas.

Fracking for natural gas and oil energy sources has been highly-contested in Ohio, particularly in Athens County — home to about a seven injection wells for fracking waste, but no active drilling sites.

Athens City Council members, in particular, have been wary for months about oil and gas activity near the county on the Ohio River. They passed a non-binding resolution this summer condemning a potential barge dock to be built in Meigs County.

Athens City Councilwoman Chris Fahl, D-4th Ward, cited last week what she called the potential for local water contamination, possibly resulting from improper fracking procedures along the river.

“If we had some sort of failure with our water supply (say our aquifer gets polluted by fracking waste) one of a very few options would be to get drinking water from the Ohio,” Fahl said in an email.

But Athens city water plant manager Shawn Beasley said in August that he isn’t too concerned about pollutants contaminating the city’s aquifer along the Hocking River.

The Tomblin administration sees fracking as an opportunity to boost West Virginia’s financial sector, by promoting economic growth in areas near the fracking wells. But at least eight oppositional groups, including the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition and the Concerned Citizens of Ohio, have voiced concerns over the potential for widespread water contamination.

Geoffrey Buckley, an Ohio University geography professor, said that risk may outweigh any economic benefit.

“Is it more risky taking the natural gas from underneath the river?” Buckley asked. “I think the risks are higher, probably, if something were to go wrong.”

Mary Ellen Cassidy, the Community Outreach Coordinator in West Virginia for FracTracker Alliance, wants to see evidence that fracking beneath the water’s surface won’t affect water quality downstream.

“My biggest question is: Where are the studies?” Cassidy said. “How desperate are we? Is this truly the only way to get energy from our economy?”

Though they’re miles upstream, Buckley said Athens County residents still have a cause for concern.

“I will always be concerned downstream of any kind of activity like that, whether it’s fracking, oil exploration, coal mining, anything like that,” Buckley said. “There are always environmental costs, and the industry and oftentimes politicians will promote these kinds of activities as if they’re aren’t environmental costs. And there always are — you can’t help it.

“Being downstream, you have to be skeptical. It’s always safe, until it’s not.”

Representatives from the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources and the Ohio Department of Natural Resources didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment over a 10-day period for this article.

This story also appears on The Post