Sitting behind his desk at his M Street office in Washington, D.C., George Hawkins, the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority's general manager, claims he's not a cautious person by nature.
But when it comes to a hotly contested pending decision about natural gas development in a nearby national forest, DC Water's leader becomes passionately cautious, jumping from his chair to a whiteboard to sketch a horizontal fracturing fissure extending below an aquifer.
Hawkins acknowledges the industry's insistence that fracturing fluids, which contain often-undisclosed chemical additives, are unlikely to make their way up hundreds of thousands of feet to contaminate the groundwater above. But, he adds, "that's the sort of thing where you don't want to be wrong. And I'm not convinced we know that for sure."
As the Obama administration continues to tout natural gas as a low-carbon "bridge fuel" that can play an important role in cutting America's greenhouse gas emissions, concerns that hydraulic fracturing poses a risk to clear, pure drinking water -- in this case, the U.S. capital's water supply -- are clouding the picture.
The natural gas industry insists hydraulic fracturing, a step in the process of horizontal drilling for natural gas, is subject to a slew of state and federal regulations, in addition to other procedural safeguards, that ensure the safety of any nearby water. But others, like Hawkins, remain unconvinced the process is bulletproof.
"Unfortunately, we're all human and errors can happen, and where you minimize error is where the consequence of an unplanned or unexpected error is of the greatest risk," Hawkins says. "... At a place where it affects every single downstream user, isn't that the place to err on the side of caution until you're damn certain that this" -- he pokes at his drawing of fracturing fluids seeping up the edges of a well -- "would never happen?"
'Unfounded fears'?Hawkins stresses that DC Water is "not ideologically opposed to fracking." But he says the potential contamination of the Potomac River's headwaters, Washington, D.C.'s drinking water source, is not worth the risk. Opponents argue that the benefits of the producing natural gas in the forest don't cover potential health risks, and the debate comes at a time when many U.S. cities, including Washington, D.C., are worried about the costs of adapting their water supply systems to deal with flooding and other stresses posed by climate change.
The Potomac's headwaters in question are contained in the 1.1-million-acre George Washington National Forest, and according to the Forest Service, about 30 other communities and more than 1 million people in Virginia and West Virginia also depend on the forest for all or much of their drinking water supply.
In 2011, the Forest Service proposed to ban horizontal drilling -- and therefore hydraulic fracturing -- in George Washington, citing concerns from surrounding communities that the process could compromise both water quantity and quality. "Water continues to be one of the most important resources produced on the Forest," the Forest Service wrote in its 2011 draft environmental impact statement.
Despite the fact that there has been limited interest in natural gas development in George Washington thus far, the natural gas industry has waged a fierce fight to convince regulators that fracking does not pose a significant threat to drinking water, fearing a ban would set a precedent on other federal lands (Greenwire, Oct. 24, 2013).
"I think there's some unfounded fears out there," said Mike Ward, executive director of the Virginia Petroleum Council. "There are just so many requirements that would have to be followed in order to protect the groundwater and aquifers in that region."
Hawkins makes waves where green groups might not
Hawkins wouldn't call his fears unfounded -- they're rooted in his experience in the late 1980s working as a U.S. EPA lawyer on Superfund cases, he says, where he spent much of his time working on hazardous waste cleanups.
"If there's anything we learned in the Superfund program, it was how incredibly hard [it is] to clean up sites once they are contaminated," he says. "Having learned the hard way, and having been responsible for cleanups ... my initial and current reaction is to be cautious."
In his current role as utility leader rather than the head of an environmental group, Hawkins' decision to go public on the risks of hydraulic fracturing is somewhat bold. Charles Murray, general manager of the Fairfax County Water Authority in Virginia, declined to comment further when asked to speak more about his 2011 letter supporting the ban, a representative said.
The American Water Works Association, a nonprofit group that often represents water utilities, also treads a careful line on the subject, stating in a 2013 white paper, "Oil and gas development is an industrial activity, and like industrial activities, it carries some degree of risk. AWWA believes these risks can be managed via prudent and reasonable protections implemented through a combination of state and federal regulations, best practices, and monitoring."
It's important to note that Hawkins' resume is unusual for a head of a large water utility. Before he became DC Water's general manager, he headed environmental advocacy groups, one of which focused on watershed protection. But because Hawkins is speaking as a utility leader rather than an anti-fracking activist, his position is making waves.
"It's no surprise that environmental groups are pushing hard to ban fracking in the forest. ... But I've been struck by the strong positions taken by more neutral parties, notably major local water utilities," Washington Post Metro columnist Robert McCartney wrote in a Feb. 1 piece, in which he quoted Hawkins extensively.
Water protection regulations questioned
When asked whether he would feel comfortable with natural gas development in George Washington National Forest if more stringent regulations were in place, Hawkins answered, "Hypothetically, it's possible, but I think we have a considerable way to go before we get there."
While there's a healthy debate surrounding the potential for fracturing fluids to contaminate groundwater, oil and gas spills do happen -- an EnergyWire investigation found that in 2012 there were 176 spills in West Virginia, a state that runs along the George Washington Forest's northern border (EnergyWire, July 15, 2013).
If the Forest Service backs out of the ban (a George Washington Forest spokeswoman said she could not yet provide a decision date), horizontal drilling there will be regulated and permitted by the state of Virginia and federal authorities, including the Bureau of Land Management.
Like many states, Virginia allows storage of all produced fluids in open pits rather than sealed tanks during the hydraulic fracturing process, although it does require at least 2 feet of freeboard and pit liners of a set thickness. Virginia also does not have a uniform setback restriction from water sources as in some states, although it requires wells to be located 500 feet from water bodies in the state's Tidewater region, according to Tarah Kesterson, a spokeswoman for the Virginia Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy.
BLM has proposed an update to its hydraulic fracturing rule, including new requirements on fracturing chemical disclosure, which could also apply to any horizontal wells drilled in George Washington if enacted. But both the natural gas industry and environmental groups have found fault with this proposal, with the former calling it too stringent and the latter claiming the update is not stringent enough.
'Let's not get this wrong'
"I don't think that the existing regulations at the state or federal level are adequate," said Sarah Francisco, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmental Law Center in Charlottesville, Va., a group that has spearheaded support on the ban. Francisco said the proposed BLM rules do not address sedimentation, which is one of her primary concerns about horizontal drilling in George Washington National Forest.
"If a significant portion of the George Washington is opened up for gas development, that will come with a tremendous amount of construction of gas wells and access roads and pipelines and associated facilities, and all of that construction is likely to increase sedimentation in the watershed," Francisco added. "Those impacts are not impacts that are eliminated."
Hawkins acknowledges that by the time the Potomac reaches the capital, DC Water isn't dealing with an entirely uncontaminated resource -- advocacy group American Rivers named it the nation's No. 1 "most endangered river" in 2012.
But he believes the water coming from George Washington National Forest is special: "In my judgment, it's hard to find a place that has more bona fides for protection than a national forest at the headwaters of a drinking water supply for a place that has no others, like Washington, D.C., the nation's capital.
"Let's take the time," he adds. "Let's not get this wrong, because getting it wrong is going to be very hard to recover from."
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