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Lawmakers seek new fracking rules as drilling booms

As Kentucky mines less coal and produces more natural gas, state lawmakers want to update the environmental protection rules that drilling companies are required to follow.

But some landowners worry the state’s rush to welcome the practice of hydraulic fracturing, also called fracking, puts their land and their health at risk. In fracking, drillers inject water and chemicals into the ground to break up rocks and extract oil and gas.

Tuesday, the House Natural Resources and Environment Committee approved a bill to update the state’s oil and gas regulations for the first time in two decades.

“It’s already legal to do fracking in Kentucky. What this is attempting to do is to get out in front of that issue and provide some additional protections so we can avoid some problems,” said Tom FitzGerald, executive director of the environmental advocacy group Kentucky Resources Council, who supports the bill.

The legislation would require companies to disclose what chemicals they use. However, they would not have to say how much of the chemical they use if they can prove that information is a trade secret. The bill would make an exception if a doctor needs to know how much of a certain chemical was used in order to diagnose or treat a patient. In such cases, the bill would allow regulators to tell doctors how much was used, but only if the doctor signs a confidentially agreement to use the information only for health purposes.

The bill would require companies to pay for water quality testing before and after the fracking process. And they would have to notify all landowners within 1,000 feet of the well.

Drillers have used fracking in Kentucky for nearly 50 years, but there has been an increase in shallow wells in the northeast part of the state, according to Kim Collings, spokeswoman for the Kentucky Oil and Gas Commission.

On Wednesday, the commission will hold a public hearing on an application for a deep horizontal well of about 4,900 feet — the first public hearing of its kind in eight years.

Kentucky produced more than $719.8 million worth of oil and gas in 2014, an 8 percent increase from 2013, according to the Kentucky Oil & Gas Association. The state collected $32 million in taxes from that production, about $2.4 million more than the previous year. Most of the increase came from Lawrence and Greenup counties, which account for 21 percent of Kentucky’s total oil production.

Vicki Spurlock, who owns 4.5 acres in Madison County, urged lawmakers to temporarily ban fracking until the state can study its impact on the environment and public health. She said an energy company asked her to sign a lease for the minerals on her land, a lease several of her neighbors have already signed. She said she worries about the health impacts on her son, who has intractable epilepsy.

“Hydraulic fracking is nothing less than full scale industrialization in the rural counties, basically our backyards. Finding this out was a shock,” she said. “Having our water contaminated like counties in Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia horrifies me.”

Democratic state Rep. Rocky Adkins, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he would not support banning fracking. He noted the bill has been endorsed by state regulators, the Kentucky Oil and Gas Association and at least one environmental advocacy group.

“I think (Spurlock) has some legitimate concerns and I think that’s the reason everybody says this is the first step,” Adkins said. “This is something for us to look at as we move forward in the future.”

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