Group Lists Virginia River as ‘Endangered’ Due to Fracking — Despite No Impacts to Rivers in Other Shale Plays

American Rivers has just released its annual list of the top-10 “most endangered” U.S. rivers, which is based on decisions the group feels could impact the rivers and communities around them. Virginia’s Rappahannock River happens to come in fifth on the latest list based on its proximity to oil and gas leasing and potential shale development.

Given American Rivers has taken $560,000 from the anti-fracking Park Foundation since 2009 and has a president, William Robert Irvin, who joined groups like Earthworks, Environment America and Sierra Club in asking Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in 2012, it’s not entirely surprising the group would choose rivers near oil and gas development for this list from time to time. However, the few times it has done so since fracking took off in 2004 have a couple of things in common: the perceived threat described by the group is far from the reality in shale plays across the country, and the rationale behind these designations is based on misinformation and misperceptions not any real-world threat.

No Negative Impacts to Previously Named “Most Endangered” Rivers in the Marcellus Shale

Previously, two rivers in Pennsylvania’s Marcellus Shale, the Susquehanna River (2011) and the Delaware River (2010), made the list as the most threatened rivers in the country for the perceived threat of natural gas development in the river basins. In fact, one of American Rivers’ “science and technical advisors”, Michele Adams, said that a 2015 report commissioned by the anti-fracking Delaware Riverkeeper was “sobering” and showed the “death by a thousand paper cuts’ effect that gas extraction activities will have on the health of streams in the Delaware River Basin.”

The Delaware River Basin is currently under a moratorium on new oil and gas development, so any statements in the study were speculative. And as EID noted shortly after the study was released, not only did it use unrealistic projections of the land impacts from an industry that continues to shrink its environmental footprint and ignore readily available data on decreasing oil and gas emissions, but federal and state studies showed the “potential” impacts simply weren’t happening across the country.

In fact, at the time the Delaware Riverkeeper study was released, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) draft groundwater report had been released, finding that fracking has “not led to widespread, systemic impacts to drinking water resources.” An EPA official confirmed after EPA’s final groundwater study was released in late 2016 that “the overall incidence of impacts” on groundwater from fracking “is low.”

Perhaps more relevant to impacts on rivers is a 2015 report released by the Susquehanna River Basin Commission (SRBC) that found Marcellus Shale development has not negatively impacted the water quality of the Susquehanna River. That report looked at the real impacts from the thousands of gas wells in the Basin, which includes some of the Marcellus’s top producing counties like Bradford, Susquehanna, Tioga, and Lycoming. From the SRBC’s press release:

“Of the 58 watersheds covered in this report, SRBC has observed:

  • with continuous monitoring from 2010-2013, data collected did not indicate any changes in water quality;

  • with a few exceptions, the water chemistry at the monitoring stations indicates good water quality; and

  • the results of aquatic insect monitoring were not affected by the density of upstream natural gas wells or pads.”

This year’s American Rivers listing of the Rappahannock River in Virginia as the fifth-most threatened river in the country is based on recent leasing for oil and gas development — including the use of fracking — in a five county area near the river. If the Susquehanna River, where a bulk of Pennsylvania’s oil and gas development occurs, is any indicator, American Rivers’ perceived “threats that industrial gas development and fracking pose to the rural and agricultural communities” are completely unfounded.

In fact, in Virginia there is a proven history of safe oil and gas development, as was explained by Virginia Petroleum Council Executive Director Miles Morin in the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star article on the report:

“There have been more than 8,000 wells drilled in 60 years, and there were only six times when operations had a temporary impact on water wells.

There has never been permanent groundwater contamination or degradation due to fracking in Virginia.”

And as a 2016 Harris Poll commissioned by the Virginia Petroleum Council found, Virginia voters from both sides of the aisle are aware of the importance of oil and gas development to their state and the country. An American Petroleum Institute press release on the poll stated:

“’A strong bipartisan majority of voters in Virginia continue to support producing more domestic energy and creating more jobs in the state,’ said VPC Executive Director Miles Morin. “Cutting-edge technologies and a core value of safety have helped make the U.S. the number one producer of oil and natural gas in the world while protecting the environment and creating jobs in Virginia.”

The statewide telephone poll of 630 Virginia registered voters also found that:

  • 88 percent agree that increased production of oil and natural gas could lead to more jobs in the U.S.

  • 83 percent agree that producing more domestic oil and natural gas could help lower energy costs for U.S. consumers.

  • 79 percent agree that producing more domestic oil and natural gas could benefit federal and state budgets through lease payments, royalty fees and other sources of revenue.

  • 79 percent agree that producing more domestic oil and natural gas could help strengthen America’s national security by lessening the negative impacts of political instability occurring in other parts of the world.”

Nonetheless, the Rappahannock has now joined rivers like the Susquehanna and Delaware as targets for scare tactics pushing misinformation about threats that don’t actually exist.

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