WV Uncovered

Lewis County Organic farmer leaving home because of fracking

Story, video and photos by: James Scott

(The following story was produced for West Virginia Uncovered)

Coal has ruled as king in the State of West Virginia for decades, but that’s changed over recent years.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, coal production is down by about 90 million short tons over the past ten years in West Virginia.

This change in coal production is due to a shift in energy practices.

Over the last decade the oil and gas industry has seen a boom in the United States, and this is all thanks to hydraulic fracturing, better known as “fracking.” According to the Natural Resource Defense Council, nearly all natural gas extraction today involves fracking.

Fracking is a process in which chemicals are mixed with large quantities of water and sand, which are then injected into natural gas wells at extremely high pressure.

Starting in the 1940s, oil and gas drilling companies began fracking rock by pumping pressurized water into it. This was done to harvest the available natural gas hidden beneath ancient layers of rock.

Over the last decade, the oil and gas industry has drilled thousands of new wells in the Rocky Mountain region and in the South. It is expanding operations in the eastern United States as well, setting its sights most recently on a 600-mile-long rock formation called the Marcellus Shale. The Marcellus Shale formation stretches from West Virginia all the way to western New York.

Approximately one million American wells have been fracked since the 1940s, most of which are vertical wells that tap into porous sandstone or limestone, like the Marcellus Shale. Since 2005, nearly 3,300 wells have been hydraulically fracked in West Virginia.

Fracking has been praised as a reinvestment in American society. Many proponents of fracking boast about the American jobs created by the practice, as well as the boost to the American economy.

But not everyone is a fan of hydraulic fracturing.

The practice brings extreme pollution, accidents and a diminished quality of life, according to Myra Bonhage-Hale owner of the organic La Paix Herb Farm in Alum Bridge, W.Va.

The 34-year resident of Lewis County, W.Va. has had enough with fracking in her area and wants to put an end to the practice in her county.

CONSOL Energy, based out of Pittsburgh, Pa.,  announced in September that they anticipated drilling at least 228 wells in the western part of Lewis County, where Bonhage-Hale’s farm is located.

According to CONSOL Energy, the potential exists for CONSOL to drill and complete approximately 750 wells in Lewis County.

Bonghage-Hale’s issue with fracking is economic and personal.

Bonhage-Hale is worried for the future of her home, neighbors and community. She fears the pollution associated with fracking will pollute her land and reverse 34 years of organic practices.

Bonhage-Hale is also concerned for her water. She worries that runoff from chemically rich fracking water will contaminate her home’s well water, her only water source.

Her home is also her business; Bonhage-Hale  creates a multitude of all natural products with her organic herbs – from lip balm to fertilizer.

She fears fracking will bring an end to it all, but refuses to go without a fight.

Along with her son, Bill Hale, and a number of likeminded friends and neighbors, Myra plans to fight for her home and end fracking in Lewis County.

Her journey began in October of 2012, when Bonhage-Hale requested a moratorium on fracking from the Lewis County Commission after hearing word that hydraulic fracturing exploration would be coming. Her request was not honored.

Since 2012, Bonhage-Hale has continued to blaze the anti-fracking trail in Lewis County. Rallying the support of her like minded colleagues.

Bonhage-Hale organized the group of six, which communicates mainly through email.

The group organized visits to the Lewis County Commission meetings, rotating members each meeting, in hopes of persuading the commission to ban fracking.

After continued efforts with little result, the group decided to organize a public forum at Jackson’s Mill to discuss their worries about fracking in Lewis County. The forum attracted around 200 residents, who came eager to be informed. The group saw the event as a big success in their journey.

Barbara Volk, an equestrian podiatrist and member of Bonhage-Hale’s group, said, “I feel like it set a precedent for what we can do, in terms of educating the public.”

Volk was also involved in a serious accident this year involving a fracking related vehicle. She was driving into Weston, on Route 33, when she was rear-ended and pushed aside by a fracking water truck at a stoplight.

“I was being tailgated the whole time,” Volk said. “The truck was so close to me that I couldn’t see his headlights in my own mirror.”

Volk sustained serious injuries from the accident, taking over a month to feel somewhat regular.

“It really screwed up my life,” Volk said. “I’m still sore today.”

Volk had always been an opponent of hydraulic fracturing, and felt even more passionate about her cause following the accident.

“I want these people out of my home. I want them to stop hurting the people and beauty of Lewis County,” Volk said.

Bob Shearer is Bonhage-Hale’s neighbor, living just down the road from her. He has the potential to profit from CONSOL Energy’s endeavors, but doesn’t want to see the land he loves turn into an industrial wasteland.

According to Shearer, his biggest concern is the safety of his water system.

Although fracking has seen such a large amount of opposition, there is little empirical evidence to date to support many of the fears associated with the practice.

According to “The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking,” a study completed by environment and energy researchers, when done correctly hydraulic fracturing can actually reduce air pollution and water usage when compared to other fossil fuel extractions.

When damage has been discovered, it has been usually found in isolated cases of hydraulically fracked wells.

Of the tens of thousands of deep injection wells in use across the United States, only about eight locations have experienced injection-induced earthquakes, most too weak to feel and none causing significant damage.

One of the main concerns behind those opposing fracking, is the lack of federal regulation on the matter.

The liquid mixture used when fracking includes acids, detergents and poisons that are not regulated by federal laws. These chemicals can be problematic if they seep into drinking water, having the potential to cause contamination.

“The Environmental Costs and Benefits of Fracking” study also addressed this issue, stating that fracking can release chemicals into the air and water when done poorly.

Bonhage-Hale has been unsuccessful in her endeavor to prohibit fracking in Lewis County so far.

Unless something changes dramatically soon, she plans to leave La Paix Herb Farm in search of a new home.

One where fracking won’t come knocking on her door.

 

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