Maryland’s two-year ban on hydraulic fracturing, better known as fracking, is expected to end in October 2017. But a small town in northern Garrett County wants to keep the drilling technique from ever being used within its borders.
The issue is divisive among the town’s roughly 500 residents.
“I'd say it's about 50-50 in the population — 50 percent of the people are for it, 50 percent are against it,” said Jess Whittemore, who sits on Friendsville’s Town Council.
Earlier this month, Whittemore introduced an ordinance to ban companies from drilling for natural gas in the Marcellus Shale that lies beneath the town. The council gave the proposal initial approval last week and plans to hold a public hearing followed by a vote in early July.
Whittemore said the debate over the proposal has gotten emotional.
“When it comes up as an issue in the Town Council chambers, people just shut up and don't want to talk about it because they don't want family members or business associates to know what position they have in case it would be taken against them,” he said.
The state Department of the Environment plans to release new drilling regulations by Oct. 1, and drilling permits beginning a year later. The agency is hosting three public meetings about the proposed regulations this week and next.
Whittemore wants to make sure that drilling never comes to Friendsville to keep the town’s air and water clean.
His house sits on the banks of the Youghiogheny River, which he says is so clean he will happily drink from it.
He also works in the whitewater kayaking industry, which he says is a major economic driver in this small town.
“We have 200 cars, 100 to 200 cars parking here every Friday, every Saturday, every Monday to run this river,” he said. “What other small town in America has that kind of commerce coming in? We’re busting at the seams with future promise.”
Air pollution is his other concern.
Donald Milton, the director of the University of Maryland’s Institute for Applied Environmental Health, led a study of the potential health risks fracking would pose to residents in western Maryland two years ago. He said air pollution from heavy truck traffic poses one of the greatest health risks.
“We have a tremendous body of literature about the kinds of air pollution that will be generated and what it does,” he said. “It causes heart attacks, it causes strokes, and to a lesser extent it causes cancer. It exacerbates asthma and has other respiratory effects.”
To keep the air clean, Friendsville’s ordinance would prohibit companies from taking water from the Youghiogheny, keeping the large water trucks from making frequent stops in town.
But according to Billy Bishoff, president of the Garrett County Farm Bureau, Friendsville’s proposed ban doesn’t make much sense.
“This is a temporary land use that, if it's done right, in 20 years, all the evidence of it will be gone,” Bishoff said. “Natural gas production is something that gives us some revenue to move forward in the future and yet still maintain the farm as a farm.”
He said the ban is symbolic because there aren’t many properties within Friendsville’s borders that would be large enough for fracking wells under current legal restrictions.
His farm, however, sits about six miles south of the town, and there are a few places on his 330 acres where he could lease his land for drilling, he said.
The ban also infringes on the property rights of people who want to lease their land to energy companies, according to Wendell Beitzel, who represents the Friendsville area in the House of Delegates.
“If they really want to do something meaningful, then why don’t they ban the use of gas and of petroleum products in the town of Friendsville and see how far that proposal goes,” he said.
But Whittemore, who proposed the ban, said area residents with less wealth see things differently.
"If you don't own property, if you don't have any prospects of selling gas to the oil companies, and you’re poor, you care less about the rich getting richer or your neighbor getting rich and more about your drinking water,” he said.