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Virginians overwhelmingly support ban on gas drilling in national forests

Seventy percent of Virginians who sent comments to the U.S. Forest Service support a ban on horizontal drilling for natural gas on the George Washington National Forest, according to an analysis released Monday by the Shenandoah Valley Network and the Bergton-based Land, Air, Water Stewardship Action group.

The report documenting broad public support for the gas drilling ban comes shortly after the agency announced a delay in release of a final long-range management plan for the forest’s one million acres of public lands. The draft management plan proposed the drilling ban to protect public drinking water sources and other resources in the GW National Forest.

The Forest Service received more than 53,000 public comments from around the nation last summer and fall on the draft management plan, with more than 95 percent expressing support for the ban on horizontal drilling, also known as natural gas hydraulic fracturing, hydrofracking or simply fracking .  Of the nearly 6,700 comments received from Virginia residents, 70 percent supported the ban, just 18 percent opposed it and the balance  addressed other issues, according to the SVN report.

“The U.S. Forest Service did the right thing when it addressed local concerns and proposed the ban on gas drilling,” said Susan Plank of the Bergton citizens’ group.  “These public lands provide our drinking water, forest products and hiking, hunting and fishing opportunities. These resources are threatened by potential water contamination and the industrialization of  public lands for gas drilling. I hope the Forest Service sticks to their guns and keeps the ban in the final plan,” she said.

Each “frack” of a horizontal gas well pumps up to seven million gallons of water, laced with undisclosed chemicals, more than a mile underground to break up shale and release the gas. Communities in West Virginia and Pennsylvania are reeling from the impacts of a shale gas drilling boom since 2007, with local governments and citizens reporting well and surface water contamination, noxious fumes, extreme noise, lights and hundreds of industrial trucks battering rural roads 24 hours a day, as well as an industrial infrastructure scarring rural lands, including permanent well pads, wastewater pipelines, condensate tank pads and gas treatment plants.

Most commenters in support of the ban on fracking were concerned about the threat to public drinking water supplies, the industrial impacts on remote rural land and communities, incompatibility with other forest uses such as timber harvest and recreation, and a lack of federal regulations and oversight. Congress exempted the shale gas drilling industry from provisions of the Safe Drinking Water Act and other environmental rules in 2005.

Eleven Virginia localities filed statements with the Forest Service supporting limits on horizontal drilling on the forest, including Shenandoah, Rockingham, Augusta, Rockbridge, Boutetourt and Bath counties, and Harrisonburg, Staunton, Lynchburg, Roanoke and Fairfax. More than 260,000 Shenandoah Valley area residents get their drinking water from the sources within the George Washington National Forest.

Plank and other Bergton-area residents delivered the analysis and copies of the official public comments supporting the ban to U.S. Rep. Bob Goodlatte’s Harrisonburg district representative on April 12. The congressman has been a vocal supporter of shale gas drilling.

“Congressman Goodlatte is usually very responsive to his constituents on national forest matters and we thought he would want to see the huge majority of comments from his district and throughout the Commonwealth in support of the Forest Service’s reasonable ban on horizontal drilling in the George Washington,” said Kate Wofford, executive director of the Shenandoah Valley Network.

The report on broad public support for the gas drilling ban came shortly after the agency announced a delay – from April to July – in the release of a final long-range management plan, which will guide public land uses for the GW National Forest for the next 15 years.

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