Virginia Governor approves new fracking protections, yet fight looms over public health disclosures

The Rappahannock River runs through Virginia’s Taylorsville Basin, which the oil and gas industry has targeted for future fracking. (© iStock)

As Virginia faced new fracking interest in recent years, the state’s oil and gas protections lagged far behind other states. Communities across the state worked with SELC and other stakeholders to address the lax oversight. Much of that work is reflected in new oil and gas regulations recently approved by Governor Terry McAuliffe that provide critical improvements to Virginia’s oil and gas policies.

The new protections include the mandatory disclosure of fracking chemicals, establishment of baseline water testing and monitoring, and implementation of spill prevention and response planning. These protections all reflect lessons-learned in states already impacted by industrial gas development using high-volume hydraulic fracturing.

“While there’s more to be done to make sure our drinking water and communities are protected from fracking and industrial gas development, this is an important step forward to protect the health and safety of all Virginians,” said SELC attorney Kristin Davis.

Even as community, public health, and conservation groups welcome the newly inked protections, oil and gas industry leaders are lobbying to promote legislation that would undermine a key protection built into the new policies. Under the new guidelines, there is a requirement for public disclosure of chemicals pumped into the ground during the fracking process, some of which are known carcinogens or associated with risks to reproductive and developmental health.

There is an industry-sponsored bill on the table for the next General Assembly session that creates a broad “trade secrets” exemption from public disclosure under the state’s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). This blanket exemption would shield companies from disclosing certain fracking chemicals, without any consideration of risks to public health or environment.

“A FOIA exemption would allow oil and gas companies to keep this information secret at the expense of public health. As the new regulations confirm, information about these chemicals is especially important to communities and emergency responders charged with protecting public health and the environment,” said Davis. “The General Assembly should not roll back this essential new protection. We will continue working with Virginia communities to build on these fracking protections, not weaken them.”

Various stakeholders participated in the three-year regulatory process to amend the regulations, including the oil and gas industry, local governments, the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, and conservation organizations. SELC and Friends of the Rappahannock, with other partners, have long championed strong local and state drilling oversight, including in the Taylorsville Basin where a company has obtained gas and oil leases on more than 85,000 acres just miles from the Chesapeake Bay. In August, King George County passed new land use laws to restrict oil and gas exploration.

“Virginia is facing a new era of industrial gas development and expansion that requires larger volumes of chemicals and more intense industrial activity, so we are understandably concerned about how fracking will impact our water, our landscape, and our communities,” said Richard Moncure, Tidal River Steward at Friends of the Rappahannock. “Now more than ever, Virginians are looking for policymakers to preserve the hard-won progress we’ve made so far.”

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