By Tyler Hammel – Capital News Service
Two bills that would let gas-drilling companies keep their chemicals secret from the public during hydraulic fracturing were approved Wednesday by a Senate subcommittee.
Senate Bills 1291 and 1292, by Sen. Ben Chafin, R-Lebanon, are intended to protect trade secrets of companies that use hydraulic fracturing, which involves pumping water and chemicals into the ground to break open rock formations containing natural gas and oil.
The state’s Department of Mines, Minerals and Energy would be the only agency normally aware of the chemicals under provisions of the state Freedom of Information Act.
The bills mirror two similar measures pending in the House of Delegates, but the Senate subcommittee added an amendment.
The original bill allowed the chemicals to be revealed to first responders in the event of an emergency. However, opponents of the bill said that notification wouldn’t give first responders enough time to respond during a crisis.
An amendment proposed by Sen. Bill DeSteph, R-Virginia Beach, and approved by the Senate General Laws subcommittee added the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Health and local and regional health directors to the list of those to be consulted about the chemicals.
DeSteph said the amendment was intended to keep water in his region of Virginia Beach safe from pollution and keep citizens safe.
“I wish no ill will to your bill, I just think the Health Department should know,” DeSteph told Chafin. “If you think that’s unreasonable, then I’m going to have a problem with your bill.”
Chafin said that because of geology, fracking is less dangerous in Virginia than in states like Pennsylvania.
“The fact we’ve been doing this for over 65 years without accident is a pretty good sign it’s not going to taint the water,” Chafin said.
Groups that opposed the House bills, such as Emily Francis of the Charlottesville-based Southern Environmental Law Center, supported the Senate legislation with the adopted amendment, saying it would allow localities to prepare for an emergency.
David Clarke of the Virginia Oil and Gas Association opposed the amendment, saying the Department of Environmental Quality already is involved in the process.
“If anyone is going to drill in that area, there are requirements for a public hearing in the locality for an extensive environmental impact to be prepared that involves DEQ and any other state agency DEQ wants to include,” Clarke said.
With the amendment, the subcommittee voted 8-0 in favor of both bills. They now go to the full Senate General Laws and Technology Committee for consideration.