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When they see the large trucks rumble along the mountain highway through their community, Eagan residents can’t help but wonder where they’re going and why. People in the Clearfork Valley of Northeast Tennessee have seen an increase in this traffic in recent months and are curious about the process they hear of called fracturing or fracking. “When they started the fracking,” said Director Marie Cirillo at the Clearfork Community Institute, “we don’t know who’s running it and we don’t know if the state has any rules to control it.”
Spokesperson Tisha Calabrese-Benton with the Tennessee Department of Environment and Conservation explains that there are no specific rules to address the gas exploration method called fracturing, although the state does regulate oil and gas drilling in general. She confirms that TDEC is in the process of potentially adding new guidelines to keep up with industry. “Regarding fracking, specifically, TDEC has met over the last several months with stakeholders, including environmental groups and industry representatives, on the issue of fracking and we are working to ensure fracking is addressed within Tennessee regulations. That process is ongoing.”
Cathy Bird is a Campbell County resident who serves as chair of the Energy, Ecology and Environmental Justice committee of the group Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment or SOCM. Bird says, “We’ve been told that there’s no fracking in Tennessee, but when you start asking questions and trying to sort things out, there actually is fracking.” SOCM has been involved in the process of helping Tennessee update and add to its regulations about energy exploration. Bird and others don’t think the current rules are strong enough. They are concerned even though hydraulic fracturing with large amounts of water is not common in this area. Instead it’s typically been an air and gaseous nitrogen process that extracts natural gas from shallow shale formations. SOCM is also concerned with the general impact of extracting fossil fuels.
Engineer John Bonar is General Manager of Atlas Energy’s Tennessee operations, working in Campbell, Scott, Morgan and Anderson Counties to find natural gas. “We’ve just completed three wells and at this point that’s what we’re doing is nitrogen, ” he explained. “Our primary target is Chattanooga Shale and the most effective method is straight nitrogen.” Bonar said no other chemical is needed in the process his teams use, unlike the hydraulic fracturing methods elsewhere. Bonner says Atlas has drilled nearly 500 wells in Tennessee with no complaints. His company collects water samples in communities prior to drilling to use as baseline comparisons later on. He says he’d drink the water near the gas wells because he feels confident about the safety measures. Atlas is one of a handful of companies exploring gas and oil in this Appalachian area.
Calabrese-Benton with TDEC says current state requirements are for thick well casings to help avoid contaminating ground water and state power to shut down a well if pollution occurs. Calabrese-Benton says if a company started producing wastewater in what she called “any significant quantity,” it would need a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit for disposal; she says there are currently no NPDES permits in the area. Calabrese-Benton says that if liquids are used in the fracturing of Tennessee’s shale formations, the amounts are much smaller than in the hydraulic fracking in other parts of the country.
Bird is hopeful that as industry, government and concerned citizens discuss energy and the environment, they can find even better ways to communicate their differences and concerns. She says she’s motivated to volunteer because she’d like to, “make it so people can live on the planet with clean air and clean water.”
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