Sustained Outrage

Natural Gas, fracking

There’s a story running on West Virginia MetroNews this morning that’s headlined, DEP catches up with Marcellus Shale industry that recounts the state Department of Environmental Protection’s progress in adding new oil and gas staffers following passage of the 2011 horizontal drilling law:

Two years have made a difference for the state Department of Environmental Protection in its oversight of the Marcellus Shale drilling industry in West Virginia …

According to DEP spokesman Tom Aluise the nearly two-year-old law is beginning to reap dividends. Aluise told MetroNews the DEP’s Office of Oil and Gas has nearly doubled its staff in two years going from just 25 workers to 46. Thirty workers are now in the inspection and enforcement department with 27 of those out in the field.

“That helps us be more responsive to the public. Be more responsive to citizens’ complaints and be responsive to the industry as well as our efficiency at reviewing applications is improving,” Aluise said.

But up at the statehouse, there was another important shale-drilling story being repeated — and the question now is whether lawmakers are going to listen to the recommendations they’re getting about problems with part of that 2011 law. It happened during a legislative interim committee hearing where WVU researcher Michael McCawley was recounting the findings of work he did for WVDEP (under a legislative mandate) to study potential air quality and public health impacts of drilling in the Marcellus region.

Now, the results of these studies (see here and here) have been generally downplayed in some of the previous media reports, with stories like this one that focused on the conclusion — pulled from this DEP letter to lawmakers — that there is no “public health emergency” revealed by the data.

During his presentation this morning, Dr. McCawley didn’t exactly dispute the WVDEP conclusion, noting that the data showed areas around drilling sites complied with federal EPA air quality standards. He added, “I want to make sure that nobody takes away the wrong message, that there are things out there that are an imminent danger.” But there’s more to it than that. McCawley did find locations where another set of health-based standards from the CDC are exceeded, particularly for benzene levels.

And overall, McCawley says the findings to date indicate a strong need for lawmakers to reconsider the new law’s 625-foot “setback” provision, which prohibits gas-drilling operations within that distance of an occupied dwelling. As Pam Kasey previously reported for The State Journal, WVDEP officials had already recommended changes in the setback language:

While the statutorily-specified location restriction is defined to be from the center of the well pad, there are a wide variety of pad sizes and configurations that may allow an occupied dwelling to be close to a well pad. Because of the potential for different well pad geometries, DEP recommends that the Legislature reconsider the reference point (i.e., from the center of the well paid) for the location restriction to occupied dwellings to reduce potential exposures.

One option to consider would be to establish location restriction from the Limit of Disturbance (LOD) of the well pad to provide for a more consistent and protective safeguard for residents in affected areas. The outermost sediment control barrier establishes the LOD around the well pad.

But as McCawley explained in person to lawmakers during today’s briefing, his report to WVDEP pointed out some problems with the whole method of using a specific “setback” distance to try to protect public health:

There does not appear to be a simple solution to specifying a single point from which to specify the set‐back distance to assure exposure control. There is no single geometry to which all drill site activities conform. The activities follow the terrain of the site and the needs of the process. There is no good reason to believe that using the center of the Pad as the reference point from which the setback is taken will assure that activity associated with some possible sources of the studied contaminants will not occur closer than 625 feet from the actual source. Studies have also shown that the meteorology (and topography) may be a more important factor than a distance measured on a map for determining air contaminant concentration.

Instead, McCawley recommended a system that includes much more monitoring of air quality at the edge of drilling site permit boundaries, along with standards that would require the best engineering practices to limit the pollutants involved.  But are lawmakers up for making more changes to the drilling law so soon, after barely being able to get the legislation passed in the first place? As Pam Kasey previously reported:

Knowing how discussions went in 2011 on wellpad setbacks, Manchin said he thought a hard-and-fast increase of the setback distance “would be difficult.”

The concern, he said, was “sterilizing” minerals — making them inaccessible.

What might be more achievable, he said, is a greater setback distance with some flexibility where operators commit to abatement measures.

WVU professor Michael McCawley, who oversaw the air quality study, said a health-based proposal for wellpad setbacks would require three years of data from wellpads in a wide variety of settings.

Although the three studies the Legislature asked for are in, Manchin said his review of the report summaries indicated to him that some issues didn’t get addressed quite the way lawmakers hoped for.

“I think there’s still a little more to be done,” he said.