In a revised plan released Tuesday for George Washington National Forest, as required by the National Forest Management Act, the USDA Forest Service reversed part of an earlier proposal that included a moratorium on hydraulic fracking. The new plan also uncontroversially set aside more land for timber production and increased wilderness area in the forest.
In 2011 the Forest Service suggested banning fracking anywhere in the 1.1 million acres of national forest in Virginia and West Virginia, which would have been the first such ban on national forest land in the country. However, after oil and gas companies objected, that plan was sent back for reconsideration. The Forest Service says the final plan, allowing drilling, aligns with the “mission of managing national forests for multiple uses.”
Ten local governments surrounding the forest have expressed concerns about the potential for fracking in the area, which contains the headwaters for the Potomac, Shenandoah, and James rivers. Currently, 2.7 million people in Northern Virginia and the District rely on water from George Washington National Forest for part of their drinking supply. In addition, the area is a direct water source for about 260,000 people around the Shenandoah Valley, according to the Associated Press.
The DC Water and Sewer Authority and conservation groups like the Southern Environment Law Center also cautioned against allowing fracking. “One of the country’s most popular national forests is absolutely the wrong place for drilling and fracking,” said the center on its website. “At a minimum, natural scenic and recreational areas should be protected from any drilling.”
The Forest Service said Tuesday that “the plan reflects thousands of comments from the public, including local communities.”
Fracking injects a slurry of water, sand, and unknown chemicals into rock to release natural gas. Residents of Wyoming, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania have accused the practice of contaminating their drinking water.
In October, the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission asked the Forest Service to prohibit fracking in the forest “until such a time as a full scientific and environmental review of the process is completed and the process can be demonstrated to be safe to the drinking water supply source in the headwaters of the Potomac River.”
An extensive EPA report on groundwater contamination from fracking is expected in 2016, a delay from an earlier 2014 deadline. The DC Council also submitted a unanimous resolution objecting to fracking in George Washington National Forest.
More than half of the forest’s area overlaps with the Marcellus Shale, one of the largest sources of natural gas in the country. Though the forest service will allow horizontal drilling and fracking, it will still require special permit approval. Last revised in 1993, the new plan may be amended at any time.