Local governments, major D.C. area water providers, and conservation organizations have warned that a U.S. Forest Service decision to allow fracking in the George Washington National Forest could threaten a range of resources — including the D.C. area’s water supply. The Forest Service released their decision to allow fracking in parts of the forest in November 2014.

Located in western Virginia and West Virginia, the 1.1-million-acre forest is the closest National Forest to Washington D.C. and contains the headwaters of the Potomac that provides drinking water to more than 4 million people in the Washington area. The forest also contains the headwaters of the James River that provides drinking water for residents of Richmond, Va.  About half of the forest sits atop the Marcellus shale, a vast natural gas-bearing formation that stretches from upstate New York to Kentucky.

In April 2011, as part of a draft update for the forest’s 10 to 15-year management plan, the Forest Service recommended against horizontal drilling in the forest citing water quality concerns as one of the reasons. However, after lobbying by more than a dozen drilling companies and trade associations including the American Petroleum Institute, Halliburton Energy Services Inc., and XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., the Forest Service is reconsidering its position.

What’s at Risk

Exempt from parts of seven major federal environmental laws, including the Safe Drinking Water Act, the Clean Water Act and the Clean Air Act, fracking has come under increasing public scrutiny as it has opened new regions to oil and gas development in proximity to population centers like New York and, now, Washington, D.C. Risks include:

  • Tourism and recreation. Each year, more than one million people visit the forest for hunting, fishing, hiking, camping and other activities. 
  • Agricultural interests and rural communities. Fracking is a heavy industrial activity requiring thousands of truck trips to service each well pad, and the pipelines required to be constructed to transport the gas from each well pad.
  • Wildlife. Construction of well pads, including the building of new roads, could cause fragmentation of habitat and stormwater runoff in formerly roadless areas.
  • Drinking water supplies for more than 260,000 people in the Shenandoah Valley who rely directly on the forest for their drinking water.

DC Area Water Providers, Government Officials Concerned

Three major DC-area water providers sent official comment letters to the Forest Supervisor in 2011 advising against allowing horizontal drilling and fracking: DC WaterFairfax Water that supplies water from the Potomac to nearly 1.7 million people in Fairfax County and the Washington Aqueduct that provides water from the river to about a million people through wholesale providers in Washington, DC, Arlington and Falls Church.

“Washington Aqueduct strongly supports the selection of an alternative [for managing the forest] that prohibits the use of horizontal fracturing (hydrofracking) for natural gas development within the Forest,” the Washington Aqueduct’s General Manager Thomas P. Jacobus wrote.  “Although studies on the technique are still needed in order to fully understand the potential impacts on drinking water, enough study on the technique has been done and information has been published to give us great cause for concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply as well as impact to the quantity of the supply.”

“Natural gas development activities have the potential to impact the quantity and quality of Fairfax Water’s source water…” Fairfax Water's General Manager Charles M. Murray wrote. “[T]he Forest has a distinct role in protecting the headwaters of the primary Washington, D.C. metropolitan area water supply.  Downstream water users and consumers will bear the economic burden if drinking water sources are contaminated or the quality of our source water supply is degraded.”

Other government officials calling for bans or moratoria on horizontal drilling and fracking in the forest include the Virginia counties of Augusta, Botetourt, Rockingham, and Shenandoah, the cities of Harrisonburg and Staunton, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Region III and eight members of the U.S. House of Representatives from Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia.

If Drilling Proceeds

  • Expected number of horizontal wells drilled: 249
  • Gallons of fluid injected into each well for fracking: 4.2 to 5 million, a combined total of more than 1 billion gallons
  • Gallons of wastewater per well expected to return to the surface after fracking:  at least hundreds of thousands
  • Carcinogens found in Marcellus shale drilling wastewater: benzene and radium
  • Truck trips forecast for each well pad assuming three wells per pad: 2,920 to 4,445