News | February 28, 2017

Virginia stands up to fracking industry’s “trade secrets” claims

In a win for protection of public health and the environment, as well as transparency, Virginia legislators from both sides of the aisle rejected legislation shielding certain fracking chemicals from public disclosure under Virginia’s Freedom of Information Act. The bills, which SELC opposed, were defeated thanks to leadership from Governor Terry McAuliffe and his administration.

Governor McAuliffe and his administration really showed up and stood strong to protect Virginians and the environment here,” said SELC attorney Kristin Davis.  “This issue was extremely important to so many people—from citizens worried about fracking chemicals showing up in their drinking water wells, to local governments whose emergency planning would have been frustrated by the bills, to free press and open government advocates. There was so much at stake for so many.

Concerned citizens and local government officials across Virginia reached out to legislators to voice their concerns about the proposed exemption from the Freedom of Information Act requirements.

Throughout the legislative session, Secretary of Natural Resources Molly Ward and staff worked closely with industry and concerned groups trying to craft bill amendments that balanced the need to protect public health and the environment with industry’s desire to protect information it deemed proprietary.

The Governor and his administration rightly held firm on the idea that the Department of Health and Department of Environmental Quality should have access to this information,” said Davis. “They are the state agencies responsible for determining if these chemicals pose a risk to public health or the environment. It was alarming that the Virginia Oil and Gas Association and Virginia Petroleum Council rejected this idea, instead demanding that the information go into a black box without any public health or environmental consideration.

During several hearings on the bills, officials from the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy, Secretary Ward, DEQ Director David Paylor, and State Health Commissioner Dr. Marissa Levine testified that the bills were unacceptable as written and opposed them. Following industry’s refusal to amend the bills, the bills failed to pass the Senate.

Rejecting the legislation—a package of four bills sponsored by Delegate Roxann Robinson (R-Chesterfield) and Senator Ben Chafin Jr. (R-Russell)—means that citizens and stage agencies can access information about which fracking chemicals are used in Virginia.

Indeed, the Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy reports that it will not exempt any fracking fluid information sent to it and will share the information with anyone that requests it, including other state and federal agencies.

The defeat of this legislation coincided with Augusta County’s decision last week to ban fracking in the county. And in the Taylorsville Basin area, Westmoreland County is considering whether to ban fracking entirely or enact stringent restrictions similar to those adopted by neighboring King George County.