Sustained Outrage

The Morgantown Dominion Post broke the story yesterday (subscription required) about the state Department of Environmental Protection approving two permits for Marcellus gas wells to be drilled just upstream from the area’s drinking water intakes along the Monongahela River.

As they reported:

Site preparation has begun, said Michael John, president of Northeaste Natural Energy, the Charleston-based company that will do the drilling …

… John said the two permits — issued March 10 and March 23 — allow the company to drill two wells on the pad — MIP No. 4H and No. 6H. If various factors pan out — including the wells’ productivity and pipeline capacity — the company may drill four more on the same pad.

The Dominion Post has a follow-up story today (subscription required), reporting:

A Monongahela River watershed group wants the Department of Environmental Protection to study the potential health ans safety risks of two Marcellus wells planned for the Morgantown Industrial Park — and preferably hold the permits until the risks can be assessed.

The letter from the WV/PA Monongahela Area Watershed Compact (which I’ve posted here) raises a number of issues:

— Any leakage, seepage, spillage, or blow-out of liquid pollutants would be a direct threat to the water intake of the Morgantown Utility Board (MUB), that serves the greater metropolitan area of nearly 100,000 people, including many residential and business areas, and the entire populace of West Virginia University ( about 40,000 people). MUB supplies to Morgantown, Westover, Granville, Laurel Point, Scotts Run, Star City, Pleasant Valley, Cheat View, and Stewartstown as well as Milan Pharmaceuticals, Inc., and the Ft. Martin and Longview power plants.

— The diverse air emissions including controlled and inadvertent releases, fugitive emissions, blow-outs, and accidental incidents that represent a major threat to the people and property here in the Monongahela River valley.

— Fire and explosion hazards, as evidenced by a number of incidents in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania; this includes the flash-fire in Washington County (PA) on February 23rd that resulted in serious injuries to three workers, two of whom were WV residents; and the recent Marcellus well blow-out in Bradford County (PA) which spread toxic fluids over a wide area despite the engineering and operating best practices of the drilling company involved. This also resulted in a temporary halt to fracking by this company in Pennsylvania and West Virginia.

The citizen group told DEP Secretary Randy Huffman in its letter:

We believe that these permitted wells plus those that may be added, can present a significant and real threat to the health and safety of residents of this area. Your office is empowered to take substantive actions when such threats to public health and safety occur; and, we herewith request that you do so without delay.

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco told the Dominion Post her agency would review the letter, but added:

We’re following the regulations that we have to follow; until we have more, we don’t have the authority behind us on a lot of things they want us to do.

One thing that these particular drilling permits are sure to cause a stir about: The lack of any requirement for DEP to issue a public notice or seek public comments — let alone hold a public hearing — before it issues permits for drilling that might impact public health and safety.

As Kathy Cosco told me in an e-mail message last night:

… There was no public hearing or comment period for these permits. Oil and Gas regulations do not call for public hearings or a comment period for well work permits. The company is required to notify the surface property owner or owners, the natural gas owner, coal owners, coal lessees and operators, and those parties have 15 days to submit comments related to the permit.

The lack of public involvement is in stark contrast to the regulations that govern many other industrial activities, and certainly quite less stringent than what the coal industry has to follow in West Virginia.

Earlier this year, the West Virginia Environmental Council made adding a requirement for public notice and comment among the top priorities for any new legislation on oil and gas drilling in the state, saying in a position paper:

The impacts of Marcellus Shale operations are felt far beyond the surface tracts being disturbed. Impacts can occur to public lands, special places, high quality streams, neighboring landowners, and local infrastructure. Therefore, EVERY permit application to drill a horizontal should be officially noticed to the public (via newspaper ads, etc.), and should include a 30-day public comment period (this is in addition to all the appropriate notice provisions to surface owners and others).