In October last year, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers issued a license to Chesapeake Energy that allows the natural gas exploration company to begin seismic testing on Greers Ferry Lake. That was news to some local residents as the license was issued without a public hearing or notice in the newspaper. Now that testing has begun, the possibility of future gas drilling has some of the locals concerned.
The license allows Chesapeake to conduct seismic tests until the end of September. In return, the company will fund the construction of docks on seven of the lake's ramp sites. Laurie Driver, spokesman for the Corps of Engineers, says similar testing has been conducted on the lake twice before and the tests should have a minimal impact on the environment and wildlife.
"They go through and bounce sound waves through the ground through small charges and they record the length of time it takes for the sound waves to bounce back," Driver says. "It makes a profile of the rocks under the surface. They dig a hole, they put a small charge in and once that's finished they have to fill up that hole."
The testing does not fall under the purview of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality or the Arkansas Oil and Gas Commission, although an ADEQ spokesman said the agency could "step in if problems arise." Chesapeake has hired FTN, an environmental engineering firm, to conduct the tests and monitor the impacts, which should be minimal, Driver says.
"We've put checks and balances in place. If they want to do a survey where there are no roads, they are not allowed to make roads, so they've been flying in equipment with a helicopter," she says.
And that's led to a lot of inquiries about what exactly is going on around the lake. Brent Watkins is the natural resource specialist for the Corps of Engineers at the Greers Ferry Project Office. He says he's received a lot of phone calls asking about the helicopters.
"People are curious," Watkins says. "Obviously, when you see a helicopter flying around and putting down equipment at locations on the shoreline on the lake, it's probably going to spur your interest a little bit. People are just trying to get clarification on what's going on. I think that was spurred on by an e-mail that was sent out to various members of the public from a group called Save Greers Ferry Lake."
Len Uecker is president of that group and author of that e-mail. SGFL is made up of local residents and other concerned citizens who use the lake for recreation. He's worried about what might happen if Chesapeake actually finds gas reserves.
"Of course, they try to play it down and say 'It's just to get a picture of the structure of the lake.' But anyway, it's to drill gas wells — only on private property — but close enough to the shore so they can do their horizontal drilling under the lake. And that's what we object to. The primary concern is they're going to put in a whole bunch of new wells as close to the lake as they can get them. That will clear land, open up the watershed and there's runoff from these well sites."
Uecker's email found its way to Chesapeake's communications manager, Mark Raines. He wrote Uecker in return:
"Regrettably, it is being communicated that we are drilling 'under' Greers Ferry Lake and 'on' Greers Ferry Lake," Raines wrote. "To the contrary, the minerals under the lake are not leased to our knowledge and we do not have any plans to extract those minerals."
But Uecker wonders why Chesapeake would bother looking for gas if they didn't plan to one day get it out of the ground. Driver says the company would not be allowed to drill on government property.
"They would not be able to go on government land to get it, but if they were on private adjacent land, they could frack a well and get under it that way," she says.
Driver said a public hearing on the testing was not necessary because it is a "short-term activity and there are no long-term consequences to the lake." But Uecker and others are afraid there will be. He says they will continue to try to get the word out.
"If there had been a public hearing, it could have been stopped," he says. "If the word had gotten out, there would have been a lot of people there and a lot of anger."
SGFL has scheduled a meeting in Greers Ferry for Thursday night to talk about the seismic testing and the prospect of future gas drilling. The meeting starts at 6 p.m. The location will be announced on the group's Facebook page.
SEISMIC: A 30-foot seismic testing boat injects air into the lake at 2,000 PSI.