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Washington DC's Sole Source of Drinking Water is Threatened by New Fracking Pipeline

A new pipeline would carry fracked gas from Pennsylvania to West Virginia under the Potomac River, a source of drinking water for around 6 million people, and much of the nation's capital.

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Jan 9 2018, 5:15pm

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Major North American energy company TransCanada is building the 3.5-mile Eastern Panhandle Expansion pipeline to service markets in West Virginia’s eastern panhandle, where a lack of natural gas is hindering industrial development, according to local business proponents. Environmentalists are concerned a potential pipeline leak could affect drinking water for the DC metro area, and that emissions from the fracked gas the pipeline would carry would accelerate climate change.

The short pipeline would also run under national park land, and through porous karst topography that environmentalists say is especially prone to gas seepage into groundwater if a leak occurred.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission (FERC), which regulates interstate gas pipelines, is set to release its environmental assessment later this month. The pipeline also needs approvals from the state of Maryland, which owns the Potomac River, including a water quality certification.

Maryland residents point out that their state would bear the brunt of the risk of the Potomac pipeline, but receive none of the benefits, because the gas will originate in Pennsylvania and serve West Virginia markets.

The pipeline has drawn opposition from local residents and environmentalists, who have held protests along the river and in affected communities, including the town of Hancock, where the pipeline will go under the Potomac. This past summer, a group of “kayaktivists” traveled down the river carrying signs, and pitched tents at a nearby campground.

TransCanada’s pipeline would connect to a much longer pipeline in West Virginia that gas distribution company Mountaineer Gas is currently building. However, FERC only has jurisdiction over pipelines that cross state lines, meaning that its evaluation process will focus on the 3.5-mile interstate pipeline, rather than the larger network under construction.


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The Potomac River is the sole source of drinking water for much of Washington, DC, including federal government offices, and the Washington Aqueduct, which serves the district and some surrounding areas.

“Washington Aqueduct relies solely on the Potomac River as its source water,” says Aqueduct official Tom Jacobus.

Washington’s Top News reported last year that the district would have just 24-48 hours’ worth of clean drinking water supply on hand if the Potomac River suddenly became unavailable.

TransCanada spokesman Scott Castleman has noted that a dozen other TransCanada pipelines already cross under the Potomac River, and TransCanada has said that it plans to bury the pipeline 100 feet underground. But the depth is irrelevant to addressing concerns about leaks in karst topography, says Brent Walls, an organizer with Upper Potomac Riverkeepers, a local environmental group which opposes the pipeline. Karst is made up of water-soluble rock like limestone, which makes karst prone to sinkholes, caves, and other large holes.

“Tens of thousands of people get their water from wells in Washington County and the eastern panhandle, and in a karst geography situation full of holes, gas can travel quickly, and enter the wells,” he said.

And it’s not just the Potomac crossing: Walls points out that TransCanada’s pipeline and the Mountaineer Gas pipeline it will join cross more than 100 streams running through karst, which feed into the Potomac.

TransCanada did not respond to VICE Impact’s requests for comment. Here's their own video on the pipeline:

Hundreds of people attended a hearing in Hancock in December 2017 held by the Maryland Department of Environment [MDE]to seek public comment on whether to grant a wetlands and waterways permit for the TransCanada pipeline. There were more people wishing to comment than time allowed, leading the state agency to plan a second hearing to accommodate those who weren’t able to comment at the first hearing.

Maryland residents point out that their state would bear the brunt of the risk of the Potomac pipeline, but receive none of the benefits, because the gas will originate in Pennsylvania and serve West Virginia markets. Maryland Environment Secretary Ben Grumbles has said that the state’s environmental approval processes will not consider the project’s relative benefit to Maryland.

Environmentalists are also concerned that building new natural gas infrastructure will lead to higher greenhouse emissions when the gas it carries is burned.

“We appreciate the ongoing public input and the continued coordination with federal and nonfederal agencies and organizations involved in the reviews. Issues raised in hearing testimony and written comments will be considered and addressed in our final decision,” Grumbles said in a statement.

Governor Hogan banned fracking in Maryland last year, and activists say approving a fracked gas pipeline across a Maryland river violates the spirit of that ban. Governor Hogan, a Republican, is up for re-election in 2018, and at least one Democratic challenger, former NAACP president Ben Jealous, has publicly opposed the Potomac pipeline.

“Maryland just decided that fracking was a threat to health and environment, and the idea that we would allow a fracked gas pipeline in a sensitive area under the Potomac River, which supplies drinking water to millions of people, seems like the total opposite mindset,” says Zack Gerdes, an organizer with the Maryland chapter of the Sierra Club.

Environmentalists are also concerned that building new natural gas infrastructure will lead to higher greenhouse emissions when the gas it carries is burned. According to the results of a 2016 study by Oil Change International, in partnership with several environmental groups, burning the existing global supply of already extracted fossil fuels will warm the planet above the 2 degrees Celsius marker established in the Paris climate agreement. Therefore, they argue, the U.S. cannot drill for more natural gas and remain within this range.

But business development advocates in West Virginia argue that a lack of access to natural gas stymies industry growth, especially in places like Jefferson County, which has no natural gas supply; local leaders have been trying to bring natural gas there since the 1970s.

“We should make sure the jobs we’re bringing to any community are safe for the people who live there, and for the workers who take those jobs,” says Zack Gerdes, the Sierra Club organizer, arguing that new development should invest in renewable energy infrastructure, not natural gas.

Energy and economic development both remain political flashpoints in West Virginia. President Trump won the state in the 2016 election with 70 percent of the vote, the highest of any state; at an August rally in Huntington, he repeated his campaign promises to bring back coal jobs.

"We should have both clean water and prosperity.”

In Maryland, more than 200 people packed into a middle school auditorium for the Department of Environment hearing in December. West Virginia environmentalist and politician Paula Jean Swearengin stepped up to the microphone to deliver the first public comment of the evening:

“We in the coal fields have had to deal with a lot of environmental pollution. We’ve had to deal a lot with the pipelines and fracking in West Virginia...I can’t tell you how many hearings I’ve been to where people are pitted against each other for clean water and clean, safe jobs. But there’s no reason we shouldn’t have one or the other. We should have both clean water and prosperity.”

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