Lewis County Lavender Farmer Worried About Fracking

  • Myra Bonhage-Hale owns La Paix Herb Farm. She worries about fracking coming to the land surrounding her property. Photo: Roxy Todd

October 3, 2014

In Lewis County, West Virginia, residents are beginning to find out details about CONSOL Energy’s plans to expand oil and gas development in their area. The company says they will begin hydraulic fracturing here as early as January. Recently, hundreds of people crowded into a tight assembly hall to attend a public forum about what the energy company is planning. The prospect of fracking in the area is prompting excitement, but also fear.

What's at stake

At the end of a two-and-a-half mile, single-lane road, sits La Paix Herb Farm. Owner Myra Bonhage-Hale is a retired social worker in her seventies. She and her son Bill live here, in a brightly painted purple homestead that dates back to the 1800s. The house, formerly called the May-Kraus home, is on the National Register of Historic Places.

Bonhage-Hale grows a variety of herbs that she distils into essential oils and hydrosols. She makes about $8,000 a year selling her herbal products and doing herbal workshops on her farm. She lives in the unincorporated community of Alum Bridge, and she doesn't own her mineral rights. She's worried that she won't be able to keep energy companies from drilling for natural gas near her home.

“I am terrified that I am going to lose this farm to Marcellus Shale drilling,” says Bonhage-Hale.

To release gas from the Marcellus Shale rock formation deep underground, companies blast water and chemicals deep into the ground at high pressures. Bonhage-Hale is worried that she and her family are going to find out that these types of hydraulic drilling well pads are coming to Alum Bridge. She is scared for her health and worried that her well water and the air on her farm will be contaminated.

She points to neighboring farms in Doddridge County, which has seen tremendous gas and oil development in the last few years.

“They've had beautiful farms, they've got fracking pads next door, they've lost all their property value," Bonhage-Hale says. "And they can't move, cause there's nowhere to go. And that's very much gonna happen in Lewis County."

Exactly what is going to happen in Lewis County—that's still unclear.

Mixed reactions

Lewis County Commission president Agnes Queen, says she's been told most of the new development will be in the part of the county where Bonhage-Hale's farm is located

“We know that in one area, they are anticipating 288 wells, in the western part of the county,” Queen says.

Queen says that lots of citizens are excited that drilling could bring new jobs to Lewis County.

“Many many many of our citizens currently work in the oil and gas industry, but possibly work out of state," Queen says. "A lot of those folks are excited because they'll be able to work at home for awhile."

Seventy-eight-year-old Bob Shear lives just over the hill from Myra Bonhage-Hale's farm. He feels bad about her situation. But unlike her, he owns most of his mineral rights. He's benefited from 14 conventional gas wells on his property.

“The hydraulic fracturing, in my case," Shear says, "could make me a fortune."

Still, Shear is not sure yet if he would welcome fracking operations on his land.

“If it was in an out-of-the-way place where I didn't think that it could ever contaminate my water system, I might be agreeable,” he says.

At CONSOL's forum in September, hundreds of people crowded into a tight assembly hall at Jackson's Mill. The industry defended its record on jobs and the environment.

“To date we have had no impact on any of these Marcellus well site locations, that showed that we have reduced the quality of the drinking water on the area. ” said Jeremy Jones, with CONSOL energy. “Just driving out here this evening to Jackson's Mill, you'll see several water truck and service companies that are already rebounding from the activity that's already occuring. Marcellus Shale Coalition states that one well will create up to 450 jobs throughout 150 disciplines, per well."

Back over the hollow at Bonhage-Hale's Lavender farm, Myra, and her son Bill, and her granddaughter, Aijah, are out in the garden. Nine-year-old Aijah has discovered three tomatoes that she planted this spring.

Bonhage-Hale fears that this idyllic scene will be lost, along with her farm's customers, if hydraulic fracking comes to Alum Bridge.

“And I feel so badly that I spent so much time, and I grew to love something so much, that we're all gonna lose,” says Bonhage-Hale.

If fracking plans go ahead, Bonhage-Hale is considering buying property in Maryland. But she knows that even there, she might not be able to escape the development of natural gas drilling.