Local Commentary

A Penny for Your Thoughts: News of Greater Falls Church


Good news for commuters using the Gallows Road bridge over the Beltway!

The bridge improvements are nearly complete, although some drainage, and curb and gutter work, will continue around the abutments, and the left turn from Gallows Road onto northbound I-495, closed for the past two years, is due to be reinstated within days. Board Chairman Sharon Bulova and I participated in a hard-hat tour of the improvements earlier this week, and especially noted the new sidewalks on the bridge. The walkways allow both pedestrian and bicycle traffic, activities that were barred, or at least, very dangerous, in the previous bridge design. The rebuilt bridge is part of the I-495 HOT Lanes project being constructed by Fluor-Lane under a public-private partnership between the Virginia Department of Transportation and Transurban. Eventually, a HOT lanes ramp will connect with the Gallows Road overpass.

Last week, I travelled to Williamsport, Pennsylvania, home of Little League International, but the trip had nothing to do with baseball. The Local Government Advisory Committee (LGAC) to the Chesapeake Executive Council held its quarterly meeting in Williamsport, on the Susquehanna River, in the far northern reaches of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. Representatives from Virginia, Maryland, and Pennsylvania focused on the gas drilling into the Marcellus Shale formations that underlie much of Lycoming County. Through a process called hydro-fracking, wells are drilled vertically thousands of feet to reach the shale. Then the drills turn sideways to force huge amounts of water and other liquids under pressure that fracture the shale formations, releasing natural gas, which is captured and sent through local pipes to the transcontinental pipeline that runs through the Pennsylvania mountains. Hundreds of wells have been drilled since 2008, and many more are in line for permits.

The natural gas discovery has created a boom for the Lycoming County economy, as leases for mineral rights on farmland and forests are signed every week. New hotels to house pipeline workers are under construction in Williamsport, and new businesses that serve the pipeline industry increase every month. One of the most interesting was a pre-treatment plant that cleans used water from the drilling fields. Contaminated with benzene and other chemicals, the used water must be pre-treated before it is discharged to the municipal wastewater treatment plant. The private pre-treatment plant represents a $20 million investment, and provides about 20 jobs. Local officials are excited about the new natural gas industry, but the environmental impacts are not completely understood. What is the long-term environmental effect on the landscape? On the farmland? In the state forests? Will hydro-fracking cause permanent damage to the underlying limestone formations? Lycoming County officials admitted that heavy truck traffic already has damaged the farm roads used to access the drilling areas. For an area that has a history of boom and bust (timber, coal, railroads, etc.) during the past two centuries, natural gas hydro-fracking does not give much comfort as to sustainability or environmental protection. A major concern is the effect on the waters of the Susquehanna River, the largest tributary emptying into the Chesapeake Bay. Sediments from the Susquehanna already have a major impact to water quality in the upper reaches of the Bay. The trip to Williamsport was designed to provide answers, but it only raised more questions.


Penny Gross is the Mason District Supervisor in the Fairfax County Board of Supervisors. She may be e-mailed at mason@fairfaxcounty.gov