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Study of fracking risks used to bolster temporary drilling ban

An assessment released Wednesday by an environmental group concluded natural gas drilling in Western Maryland comes with a high risk of contaminating groundwater and surface water, causing air pollution and consuming land.

The study, commissioned by the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and Citizen Shale, examined 10 potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing, also known as “fracking.” For critics of the drilling process, the findings provide backing for Sen. Ron Young’s proposal to place a temporary stay on fracking until lawmakers understand the potential hazards.

“We just think that really it’s been a long time since Maryland has considered an environmental issue of such great importance to the state,” Paul Roberts, co-founder of Citizen Shale, said during a Wednesday phone conference about the report’s release.

Fracking involves injecting pressurized water into the ground to access natural gas reservoirs. The Marcellus shale formations believed to hold the natural gas deposits underlie vast portions of the northern Appalachian Basin, including parts of Garrett, Allegany and Washington counties.

Though fracking’s health and environmental risks are concentrated around the well sites, the activity could have ripple effects for surrounding areas such as Frederick County, said Mark Broomfield, lead author of the assessment and an air quality, odor and health risk specialist with the company Ricardo-AEA. For instance, fracking could put more trucks on the state’s roads and lead to noisy and disruptive construction of gas pipelines in the county, he said.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, also noted that natural gas deposits likely exist across much of the state, so the risks described in the assessment could have bearing on Frederick County’s future.

A fracking study ordered by Gov. Martin O’Malley is now in progress to examine potential groundwater contamination, environmental impacts and wastewater disposal. Drilling is on hold during the study, with the final report on fracking due in August.

Young, D-District 3, is urging lawmakers to wait an additional 18 months after the report’s completion before allowing any hydraulic fracturing permits. With the Maryland General Assembly only in session from January to April, the bill would give legislators time to react to the report before fracking permits are issued, said supporters of the proposal.

Drew Cobbs, executive director of the Maryland Petroleum Council, noted that the risk assessment came out as Young’s bill makes its way through the Legislature.

“The timing and issuance of the report is purely political,” he said.

Environmental groups often point to anecdotal evidence of fracking’s dangers, but Cobb said that, in reality, natural gas drilling happens safely across the country.

Delegate Heather Mizeur, D-Montgomery, is sponsoring the 18-month fracking ban bill in the House of Delegates.

This session, the Senate Education, Health and Environmental Affairs Committee has already voted unfavorably on a bill to enact a fracking ban. Young’s bill is set for a hearing before the committee Feb. 25.

Follow Bethany Rodgers on Twitter: @BethRodgersFNP. ___

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