I just returned from a trip to Doddrige County, West Virginia where I was able to see firsthand what fracking (hydraulic fracturing) is like. My first impression was ‘Oh my god, please don’t let this happen to NC’. I immediately noted how overwhelmingly invasive the whole operation is. It was like kudzu that once it takes hold it covers everything.
Like NC, West Virginia is beautiful, lush, and green with an abundance of wildlife and picturesque mountain streams. But it has been raped by the oil/gas industry leaving ugly scares and open festering wounds across its landscape.
I’ve been following fracking issues for a while and knew there would be a lot of fracking activity in WV, but not to the extent that we saw. I expected to see many pipelines, for instance. But it seemed there was a pipeline right-a-way just about every mile. They were cleared 50 foot-wide right-a-ways forming a spider web across the county. Then there were the fracking well pads, compressor stations, pigging station (access points to clean the pipelines), extraction plants, holding ponds, and holding tanks just to name a few of the things that go along with fracking. And the size of each one of these structures was double or triple the size of what I thought they would be. There was no distance more than a city block that didn’t have something.
This area of WV has had conventional oil and gas drilling operations for years. Most of the people we talked to had wells on their property and received free gas as a result. Most would agree that’s not a bad thing. But there is a BIG, and I mean BIG, difference between conventional gas drilling and fracking. Visually, the difference in size of the two operations is immense. Most conventional wells, that we saw, were a few pipes coming out of the ground with a small tank a few feet away. This covered an area no more than 20 by 30 feet. The fracking well pads on the other hand took up multiple acres and had huge access roads leading to them. Of course the difference in damage to the environment and communities are enough to fill a book.
Then if the above isn’t bad enough, we had to constantly stop our car to allow trucks to pass. Like Stokes County, their roads were not designed for the volume and size of the truck traffic needed to support fracking (over 1,000 heavy trucks per well per frack). As a result the roads have to be repaired about every month. Accidents were common.
The impact kept mounting. As we drove around we would get hit with a wave of obnoxious fumes. I can’t imagine living next to something constantly emitting toxic air. The noise from the well pads, compressor stations and extraction stations was like living next to an airport with jet engines running 24/7. There were many “man-camps” where out-of-area workers lived in campers for temporary housing.
All of this was very depressing and disturbing, but most disturbing was the lack of regulations and no enforcement or inspections. The oil industry has free range to do as they please. Our hosts for the visit told us about everything from improperly marked trucks, to the lack of vents in the pipelines (needed to release pressure), to contaminated water wells, to well explosions with fatalities that resulted to no action from regulators. Unfortunately our current NC rules and regulations look like they will offer us no better protection.
My final observation was the impact to their economy and quality of life. Our legislators push the bills to allow fracking because it would bring jobs to NC. But based on what I saw, very few West Virginians reaped the benefits. Most of the jobs were held by outsiders. The drillers and other industry- specific companies bring their own crews and even jobs like truck drivers are mostly out-of-area hires. The main benefit to the economy was to restaurants and other service industries. Some local entrepreneurs would install facilities to lease their property for man-camps. The downside to the economy far outweighed the good. The industry takes over like slime mold killing the quality of life for locals. Roads and traffic were terrible. A normal ten minute trip could take 30 minutes due to the truck traffic. First responders were relegated to traffic control in an emergency because they are not trained or equipped to handle oil/gas situations. Our host told of one local that had her well contaminated but said nothing because she felt she couldn’t fight city hall or in this case the gas industry.
In all, my trip was very enlightening and depressing. If NC is fracked, it will change life as we know it.