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New York City is not the only major metro area whose drinking water supply could be threatened by shale gas drilling.  The Washington, DC area has joined the club.

That’s because the U.S. Forest Service could decide as early as October 2013 to allow horizontal drilling for shale gas in the George Washington National Forest, a 1.1. million-acre tract located in western Virginia and West Virginia that is the closest National Forest to Washington D.C. and contains the headwaters of the Potomac River that provides drinking water to more than 4 million people in the Washington area.

About half of the forest sits atop the Marcellus shale, a vast natural gas-bearing formation that stretches from upstate New York to Kentucky.

In April 2011, as part of a draft update for the forest’s 10 to 15-year management plan, the Forest Service recommended against horizontal drilling in the forest citing water quality concerns as one of the reasons. However, after lobbying by more than a dozen drilling companies and trade associations including the American Petroleum Institute, Halliburton Energy Services Inc., and XTO Energy, a subsidiary of Exxon Mobil Corp., the Forest Service is reconsidering its position.

Among those opposing horizontal drilling in the forest are local governments such as Augusta and Botetourt Counties in Virginia, conservation organizations including the Shenandoah Valley Network and Southern Environmental Law Center and two major DC-area water providers, Fairfax Water that supplies water from the Potomac to nearly 1.7 million people in Fairfax County, Virginia, and the Washington Aqueduct that provides water from the river to about a million people through wholesale providers in Washington, DC, Arlington and Falls Church, Virginia.

“We still don’t have the science to inform the decision,” Jeanne Bailey, a spokeswoman for Fairfax Water, recently told Bloomberg. Regulators should “wait on the research to make the decision” to open the forest to drilling, she said, echoing a 2011 letter that Fairfax Water sent to the Forest Service.

“Washington Aqueduct strongly supports the selection of an alternative [for managing the forest] that prohibits the use of horizontal fracturing (hydrofracking) for natural gas development within the Forest,” the Washington Aqueduct’s General Manager Thomas P. Jacobus wrote in a 2011 letter to the Forest Service.  “Although studies on the technique are still needed in order to fully understand the potential impacts on drinking water, enough study on the technique has been done and information has been published to give us great cause for concern about the potential for degradation of the quality of our raw water supply as well as impact to the quantity of the supply.”

“If you had a pollutant anywhere in the watershed, it would be a concern,” Ken Landgraf, planning staff officer for George Washington National Forest recently told the Washington Post. “But in the headwaters, everyone would have to deal with that. Everybody’s going to see that further downstream in the watershed.”

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