On Monday night, the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors voted to update both its comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance to better protect the county, its residents, and drinking water from threats posed by hydraulic fracturing, or fracking.
“The best, most complete science makes clear that industrial gas drilling and fracking pose significant risks to the residents, public health, and drinking water in Westmoreland County, as well as the character of the county and its communities,” said SELC attorney Kristin Davis. “For years now, County officials and residents have thoughtfully considered how to best address these risks – and we applaud them for taking such decisive action now.”
Before allowing any drilling in the County, the new rules would require the land to be rezoned to a new Resource Extraction district designed to protect residential areas, productive farms and timberlands, and the rural character of Westmoreland.
After rezoning, drillers must then seek a special exception permit that would impose numerous standards on operations. Chief among these is a requirement that gas wells be set back anywhere from 500 to 3,300 feet from important features like homes, schools, wetlands, and private wells. The permit would also provide standards for noise, vibration, light and glare, drilling waste containment, and other criteria.
Westmoreland County sits atop of geologic formation known as the Taylorsville Basin, which has drawn interest in recent years from fossil fuel companies exploring for natural gas. The county is also sandwiched between the Potomac and Rappahannock rivers, raising residents concern about fracking impacts on local water sources and the Chesapeake Bay downstream. The threat of fracking along the Rappahannock earned it a spot on this year’s list of Most Endangered Rivers in the U.S.
Westmoreland County’s vote follows a string of Virginia counties amending their zoning ordinances to address these risks. Neighboring King George County similarly restricted drilling in 2016, while Augusta County banned fracking in February 2017 and Richmond County followed suit in November.
SELC and the Friends of the Rappahannock filed multiple rounds of comments with the Westmoreland County Board of Supervisors supporting this change to the comprehensive plan and zoning ordinance.