Sustained Outrage

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West Virginia regulators aren’t saying exactly what happened, but environmentalists are growing increasingly concerned about a large spill of  “fracking fluid” from a gas drilling operation in Doddridge County.

The incident in question apparently occurred in late August along Buckeye Run, between West Union and Salem.  The stream is a tributary of Middle Island Creek, and the drilling operation run by West Union-based TAPO under a permit issued by the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.

Luanne McConnell Fatora, who grew up along Buckeye Run, learned of the spill on the evening of Aug. 24, and described her experience in a letter to Gov. Joe Manchin, which was published in the Highlands Voice, the newsletter of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy:

I went home to Doddridge County to spend the night with my oldest son as we were going to Oberlin, Ohio, the next day to get him settled in at college. My son chose that route as it would give him just one more opportunity to cast his line in the waters of Buckeye Run Creek.

He headed down to the creek at 9 p.m. and came back saying there appeared to be a ‘problem.’ We took flashlights down to our fishing hole, the acrid, oily smell of this red/orange gel met us almost up to the house. I got it on my hands, the smell of which didn’t go away for some time despite repeated washing.

Well, it’s now more than a month later. And when I talked to James Martin, chief of the DEP Office of Oil and Gas, on Friday, he said his agency “still can’t say exactly what transpired.”

But, between 50 and 70 barrels of what a DEP inspector called “the contaminate” has been cleaned out of Buckeye Creek. Martin told me the material is consistent with what you would find in “drilling pit fluids,” the toxic wastes leftover from gas drilling, especially in the Marcellus Shale formation that’s all the rage with the gas industry.

Citizens, environmentalists and some officials in a variety of gas-producing states have become increasing concerned about water pollution tied to the disposal of this fracking fluid, or brine. Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica has been documenting this problem nationwide with his great reporting.

In West Virginia, the WVDEP has issued some proposed rules to try to get a handle on this issue.  But officials in neighboring Pennsylvania have gone to the federal EPA, worried that West Virginia isn’t doing enough and that the pollution will cross the border in the Monongahela River.

In the Doddridge County incident, WVDEP officials did issue an Notice of Violation to the drilling company.  But environmental groups worry that’s not enough, and they especially want to know exactly what happened — something that WVDEP says it hasn’t been able to figure out. Oddly, though, WVDEP inspector David Scranage wrote in a memo that he has “no proof that this was a deliberate act by the operator and shall commend the efforts made to correct the situation.”

And in a letter responding to  Luanne McConnell Fatora’s concerns, Gov. Manchin made quite the ironic typo:

I am in receipt of your recent correspondence and pictures regarding Buckeye Creek in Doddridge County. I appreciate you brining this matter to my attention.