FROSTBURG — A citizens’ group is trying to convince Frostburg’s mayor and City Council to ban hydraulic fracturing within city limits and on city-owned land as well as prohibit selling city water for natural gas exploration.
“We want to provide protection to our community and its residents from the many, many risks that are associated with fracking,” said Kathy Powell, a member of the group Frack-Free Frostburg and owner of Main Street Books. “In addition, because Frostburg supplies water to surrounding communities, we are also concerned about the well-being of our neighbors, both individually and collectively.”
Hydraulic fracturing, commonly referred to as fracking, is a drilling technique where highly pressurized water is injected into deep underground rock formations causing them to break. Once the formation cracks, oil and natural gas are extracted for commercial use.
The technology has been around for about 70 years, but a newer technology known as horizontal drilling, now allows energy companies entry to otherwise inaccessible shale formations deep under soil, sparking a fracking boom over the past decade.
According to the Energy Information Administration, more than half of the nation’s oil output comes from fracking.
Members of the anti-fracking group approached city officials with concerns over the safety of city drinking water at an open business meeting July 21. Officials released a written response to group members’ questions on Sept. 15.
“The issue of protection has many different elements to it,” said John Kirby, Frostburg’s city administrator. “The primary threat to the water system is the potential of spills on Interstate 68. Those things could happen today. The potential of contamination from a gas well used in hydraulic fracturing doesn’t exist in Maryland ...”
Maryland has a moratorium on fracking in place until October 2017. Last week, Maryland environmental officials proposed what they call the “most stringent and protective” fracking guidelines in the country.
“This is our attempt to listen to the concerns, learn from what other state regulators and the federal government have been learning over the past decade and propose the most stringent and protective regulations,” said Department of the Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles.
The Mountain City has two main sources of water, one being a natural spring and two wells on the west side of Big Savage Mountain, and the other — the largest source — is Piney Dam in northern Garrett County. The dam is fed by a watershed from both Garrett County and parts of Somerset County, Pennsylvania.
The city vows to protect the water, even after selling 3 million gallons to Sampson Resources Corp., an independent oil and gas exploration and production company, in 2009 for the construction of two gas wells for the purpose of hydraulic fracturing, as well as hiring an engineering firm to access the Piney watershed for potential fracking.
“Today, it (contamination) would only exist in the portion of the watershed in Pennsylvania and so we invested millions of dollars, as the report indicates, in improving our collection system both from the Piney Reservoir and the Savage River wells,” said Kirby. “In 2012, as a result of growing concern from a number of people in Maryland, we began additional testing of the well water from both sources from Piney and from Savage in an effort to monitor contamination that might come from hydraulic fracturing.”
In addition to the testing, Kirby said proposed state regulations would eliminate the Piney Dam and Savage River from the fracking area.
“Those proposed regulations specifically eliminate the entire watershed that provides water for the city’s Piney Reservoir and it covers the entire watershed that are springs and wells that are on Big Savage Mountain,” said Kirby. “So this isn’t about Frostburg. You are not going to be able to drill and use hydraulic fracturing in those two watersheds.”
“The folks who are part of the anti-fracking group have been very clear in their statements to us, in that what they want is to use an action by the Frostburg mayor and council as political leverage in the Hogan administration and the General Assembly to ban fracking altogether.”
Kirby said a current city ordinance prohibits drilling.
“Inside city limits, it is not permitted to drill for oil and gas under the city ordinance — period,” Kirby said. “And it has been that way since the ordinance was updated in 2014.”
Hydraulic fracturing is legal and active in 21 states throughout the nation, including neighboring West Virginia and Pennsylvania. The public will have until Oct. 1, 2017, to comment on the MDE’s proposed regulations before they are finalized.
Frack-Free Frostburg members say they will attend a work session of the Frostburg mayor and council members on Monday to discuss the possible ordinance. More than 20 city businesses and 300 citizens have signed a petition to ban the process in the city.