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Readers may recall a post a couple of weeks ago about a West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection settlement with Antero Resources about a series of spills at the company’s operations (See WVDEP probe of Antero spills finds … more spills).
Well, a coalition of citizen groups — including the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, West Virginia Citizen Action Group and the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization have submitted comments to WVDEP about this deal. Here’s some of what they said:
This enforcement action sets a bad precedent by signaling to irresponsible drilling companies that non-compliance is cheaper than compliance. Antero’s degree of non-compliance reinforces the perspective that drilling companies can get away with violating permit requirements and in fact shirk the permitting process completely with minimal repercussions. WVDEP must hold the company accountable for their blatant disregard for the law, implement stricter enforcement actions, and provide consequences that deter non-compliance rather than allowing drilling companies to escape compliance with a minimal financial penalty.
You can read the full comment letter here.
A new study out today links natural gas drilling with increased risk of asthma. Here’s the press release from the Journal of the American Medical Association’s Internal Medicine journal:
Residential unconventional natural gas development activity, a process that involves fracking and creates a source of energy used both domestically and internationally, was associated with increased risk of asthma exacerbations in a study of patients with asthma in Pennsylvania.
Asthma is a common chronic disease with nearly 26 million people in the United States with asthma. Outdoor air pollution is recognized as a cause of asthma exacerbations. Unconventional natural gas development (UNGD) has been associated with air quality and community social impacts, such as air pollution from truck traffic and sleep disruption.
Pennsylvania has moved rapidly with UNGD and more than 6,200 wells were drilled between the mid-2000s and 2012.
The release explains:
Brian S. Schwartz, M.D., M.S., of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, and coauthors looked at associations between UNGD and asthma exacerbations.
The authors compared patients with asthma with and without exacerbations from 2005 and 2012 who were treated at Pennsylvania’s Geisinger Clinic. The study included 35,508 patients identified in electronic health records.
The authors estimated activity metrics for the four phases of UNGD (pad preparation, drilling, stimulation and production) using the distance from patients’ homes to the wells, well characteristics and the duration of phases.
Between 2005 and 2013, 6,253 unconventional natural gas wells were spudded (the start of drilling) on 2,710 pads; 4,728 wells were stimulated and 3,706 were in production.
The authors identified 20,749 mild (new oral corticosteroid medication order), 1,870 moderate (emergency department visit) and 4,782 severe (hospitalization) asthma exacerbations and matched those to control index dates for comparison.
Patients with asthma in areas with the highest residential UNGD activity had higher risk of the three types of exacerbations compared with those patients in the lowest group of residential activity, according to the study results.
Here’s a link to the study and here’s a story about it that was posted earlier by State Impact.
Photo from WVDEP
Back in December 2014, inspectors from the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection went to Harrison County to check out a reported spill at a fracking wastewater processing facility operated by Antero Resources. The company had reported that the spill was contained and that cleanup was complete.
But when WVDEP got there, here’s what they found:
During the inspection, however, WVDEP personnel observed and documented that the reported spill from a leak in the frac tank was in progress, cleanup was not completed, and the wastewater was leaking outside of the dedicated container system.
It was also noted during the inspection that a second source of spillage (Spill Two) was occurring near the western footprint of the Water Process Facility near a small unnamed tributary of Limestone Run, and the soil in the area was dark and had a petroleum odor.
Agency officials said that lab results of a soil sample taken on the eastern bank of the stream (the side where the spill occurred) revealed “elevated levels” of total chloride, total strontium, total barium, and diesel range organics, as compared to a sample on the opposite bank of the stream.
That’s all according to a recent “Consent Order” that Antero has agreed to and that WVDEP officials have released for public comment.
And there’s more … In a follow-up inspection two days later, WVDEP officials:
… Observed that, in addition to the two spills observed and documented during the December 16, 2014, inspection, another spill (Spill Three) had occurred. Further investigation revealed that this spill had not been reported. WVDEP personnel observed another spill (Spill Four) in an area down gradient of the offload manifold covered with straw. Further investigation revealed that a tank truck had spilled its contents during off-loading activities, a spill containment system had not been deployed, the contents had migrated off the pad and onto the ground, straw had been deployed to soak up the contents, the soil was stained black, and the spill had not been reported.
Protesters stand in front of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia before an appearance by Environmental Protection Agency then-(EPA) Administrator Lisa Jackson Friday Jan. 13, 2012. Residents of the small northeastern Pennsylvania town of Dimock, at the center of the political fight over natural gas drilling, joined environmental activists from elsewhere to rally Friday outside a conference on urban environmental issues. (AP Photo/Jacqueline Larma)
With all of the aggressive public relations from all sides — and the flurry of conflicting statements in political campaigns — it is certainly becoming more and more difficult for the public to understand the ongoing discussion of natural gas drilling’s environmental and economic impacts.
Thankfully, there are some great journalists out there who continue to work on these stories and cutting through the conflicting claims. For several years, the best among them has been Abrahm Lustgarten of ProPublica, whose work on the issue is archived here.
Today, we have another important story from Abrahm, “Federal Report Appears to Undercut EPA Assurances on Water Safety in Pennsylvania,” which digs again into the issue of drilling’s impacts on the drinking water in Dimock, Pa.:
Since 2009 the people of Dimock, Pennsylvania, have insisted that, as natural gas companies drilled into their hillsides, shaking and fracturing their ground, their water had become undrinkable. It turned a milky brown, with percolating bubbles of explosive methane gas. People said it made them sick.
Their stories — told first through an investigation into the safety of gas drilling by ProPublica — turned Dimock into an epicenter of what would evolve into a national debate about natural gas energy and the dangers of the process of “fracking,” or shattering layers of bedrock in order to release trapped natural gas.
But the last word about the quality of Dimock’s water came from assurances in a 2012 statement from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — the federal department charged with safeguarding the Americans’ drinking water. The agency declared that the water coming out of Dimock’s taps did not require emergency action, such as a federal cleanup. The agency’s stance was widely interpreted to mean the water was safe.
Now another federal agency charged with protecting public health has analyzed the same set of water samples, and determined that is not the case.
The finding, released May 24 from the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, warns that a list of contaminants the EPA had previously identified were indeed dangerous for people to consume. The report found that the wells of 27 Dimock homes contain, to varying degrees, high levels of lead, cadmium, arsenic, and copper sufficient to pose ahealth risk. It also warned of a mysterious compound called 4-chlorophenyl phenyl ether, a substance for which the agency could not even evaluate the risk, and noted that in earlier water samples non-natural pollutants including acetone, toluene and chloroform were detected . Those contaminants are known to be dangerous, but they registered at such low concentrations that their health effects could not easily be evaluated. The water in 17 homes also contained enough flammable gas so as to risk an explosion.
Read the whole thing here.
This image provided by the West Virginia State Police shows a fireball erupting across Interstate 77 from a gas line explosion in Sissonville, W. Va.,Tuesday Dec. 11, 2012. (AP Photo/West Virginia State Police)
We haven’t told you much lately about the commission put together by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to study the safety and health problems that have come with the boom in natural gas production in West Virginia’s Marcellus Shale region.
For generations, West Virginia has been one of our nation’s leading energy producing states. As we continue to explore opportunities to diversify our state’s energy portfolio, we must ensure the safety of hardworking West Virginians at drilling sites, production facilities and pipelines across the state. That’s why I am requesting a study to determine how we can best protect workers at natural gas operations. We must ensure our workers have the proper training and skills to do their jobs in the most effective way possible and return home safely. Workforce safety must be the expectation for businesses operating in West Virginia, not an afterthought.
We reported on the commission’s first meeting back in August, but haven’t checked back in with them since (largely because of the flurry of activity covering the Don Blankenship trial).
Under the governor’s executive order, the commission was to “prepare and issue a final report” by Nov. 16, 2015. We haven’t seen a final report yet. Maybe we’ll hear something tomorrow night from the governor, but at the least, I’m told that the final report should be ready later this week.
Until then, what we do have are the minutes of the commission’s last meeting on Nov. 12, which include a summary of the panel’s recommendations to the governor. The recommendations focus first on issues related to emergency response when incidents occur at oil and gas operations. For example, the commission recommended:
— The governor’s office should develop legislation to require that drilling and pipeline construction activities are subject to the state’s 15-minute notification law (W.Va. Code 15-5B-3a(b)(1)). Provisions may apply to fires, explosions, and similar emergency events (confirmed emergencies) at drilling and pipeline construction sites (with greater than 3-inch lines). Provisions also should consider situations when gaps in communications present a challenge to meet the notification time limit.
— Under the direction of the governor’s office, the state should establish a database to track incidents and accidents at an associated with natural gas and hazardous liquid drilling and pipeline sites statewide. The state will monitor the database to look for trends that might require additional efforts to mitigate future issues. The W.Va. Division of Homeland Security & Emergency Management (WVDHSEM) also should map out, review, and affirm “natural gas and hazardous liquid incident” notification/communications protocols within state government.
— The West Virginia Fire Marshal will conduct an evaluation to assess the need (current and future) for fire/emergency responder training and equipment. Presently, county fire/emergency responders benefit from several sources, including voluntary support from oil and natural gas companies. Consideration of any new fee related to “fire service” for emergency responders should be done prodently on a case-by-case basis at the local level.
Earlier this summer, Gazette-Mail business writer Andrew Brown produced a detailed look at how West Virginia’s oil and gas industry uses partition lawsuits to assemble the mineral rights it wants to pursue natural gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale region. Now, Andrew has spent some time examining the recent hype over the Utica Shale and provides us with this guest blog post:
Based on reports, one can be forgiven for believing that West Virginia is about to witness an immediate surge in gas exploration in the state’s northern counties. Over the past month, coverage of the gas industry has been fueled by a new study by West Virginia University that suggests the state may be sitting above another one of the world’s largest gas reserves – the Utica shale, a formation located several thousand feet below the now well-known Marcellus.
When the study was unveiled in Canonsburg, Pa., on July 14, numerous stories were written that played up the Utica’s potential and the possibility of the formation overtaking the Marcellus as the primary target of gas companies.
The State Journal wrote:
While the Marcellus Shale basin has been getting most of the credit for West Virginia’s recent natural gas boom, a recent West Virginia University study suggests the Utica play could soon fall under the spotlight.
Data from the Utica Shale Play Book Study, a two-year geological study conducted by the Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium, suggests the Utica Shale play is much larger than original estimates, and its size and potential recoverable resources are comparable to the Marcellus play, the largest shale oil and gas play in the U.S. and the second largest in the world.
The Exponent Telegram quoted Doug Patchen, the director of the Appalachian Oil and Natural Gas Research Consortium, the WVU group that led the study:
“It certainly has that potential. Right now, we’re estimating it has an equal potential, at least, to the Marcellus. It’s just a matter of time,” Patchen said.
With all of this hype over the formation, it should come as no surprise that gas companies – some of which helped to fund the study — took the opportunity to emphasize their plans to drill their first Utica wells in West Virginia. On July 31, the EQT officials emphasized the results of a Utica test well in Pennsylvania and reiterated their interest in drilling another well in Wetzel County later this year. As the State Journal reported:
EQT Corp.’s test well in the Utica Shale in western Pennsylvania has produced more dry natural gas than expected, so now the question is whether the Utica test well it plans to drill in Wetzel County soon will deliver the same results.
And less than two days after the study was released, Antero Resources jumped on the opportunity to announce its first exploratory well in Tyler County. The Exponent Telegram predictably linked the company’s announcement to the WVU study:
News of Antero’s first Utica well in the Mountain State comes as new research suggests the gas play contains far greater reserve than originally thought. On Tuesday, researchers released the results of a West Virginia University-led study that concluded the Utica holds 782 trillion cubic feet of technically recoverable natural gas and another 1,960 million barrels of oil.
We’ve written many times before on this blog about the continuing questions regarding the climate impacts of the boom in natural gas drilling (see here, here, here, here and here). Today, there’s more news on this topic, from a series of studies sponsored by the Environmental Defense Fund. As EDF chief scientist Steven Hamburg explains:
Methane emissions from vast oil and gas operations in the densely populated Barnett Shale region of Texas are 50 percent higher than estimates based on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) greenhouse gas inventory, according to a series of 11 new papers published today in Environmental Science & Technology.
The majority of these emissions are from a small but widespread number of sources across the region’s oil and gas supply chain. These emissions come from the sort of leaks and equipment malfunctions that are relatively easy to prevent with proper and frequent monitoring and repair practices.
Inside Climate news has a great roundup of the studies available here.
Fire crews from Marshall County battle a gas well fire in Moundsville, WV, Monday June 7, 2010. The explosion and resulting fire sent seven people to area hospitals including three workers who were flown to a Pittbsurgh burn center. (AP Photo/The News-Register, Kef Howard)
A committee of West Virginia lawmakers spent some time over the last two days talking about a growing, but not very well publicized, issue facing the state as the Marcellus Shale gas-drilling boom continues. We’ve written about it before:
As West Virginia’s natural gas industry booms, more workers are paying the price as deaths on the job are increasing, according to new federal government data.
Thirteen workers in the state’s oil and gas industry died during the five-year period between 2008 and 2012, according to the data from the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. That’s more than double the five workers who died in the industry during the previous five-year period, between 2004 and 2008, according to the bureau.
The increase in worker deaths came as natural gas production in West Virginia — fueled by the rush to tap into the Marcellus Shale reserves — also more than doubled, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
During an initial meeting on Tuesday, James Martin, chief of the state Department of Environmental Protection’s Office of Oil and Gas, told the Joint Committee and Labor and Worker Safety Issues that, despite a mandate in the 2011 National Gas Horizontal Well Control Act for operators to submit safety plans to DEP, state officials leave worker safety mostly up to the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration:
Our focus is on the environmental side of it, so that’s what we look to. Obviously, there is overlap. The same issue could result in both safety and environmental concerns. But our focus is on the environment.
Charleston lawyer Tammy Bowles-Raines, testifying for the West Virginia Association for Justice, told the committee that injuries and deaths from being struck by moving equipment, explosions, and transportation accidents are on the rise in the state’s Marcellus boom:
Worker safety in the oil and gas industry is a growing concern.
Commercial Photography Services of West Virginia
The pressure continues to build on Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin to call a special session so West Virginia can walk back the landmark chemical tank safety and public drinking water law that miraculously made its way through the Legislature in the wake of January’s Freedom Industries spill and the Kanawha Valley water crisis that followed.
Yesterday, Senate President Jeff Kessler and House Speaker Tim Miley issued a joint statement urging Gov. Tomblin to call that special session so they can roll back the deadline for chemical tank owners to determine if their tanks are safe and report that information to the state Department of Environmental Protection. Here’s what they had to say in that joint release:
We urge Governor Tomblin to call a brief special session during the upcoming September interim meetings to modify the date of implementation for the inspection and certification of the Above Ground Storage Tank Act (SB373). Doing so during the interim meetings will not incur any additional cost to the taxpayers.
While we are extremely proud of the comprehensive regulatory legislation produced earlier this year to protect drinking water for our state citizens, it has become apparent that the Jan. 1, 2015 deadline for these inspections is unattainable. Extending that deadline will allow the state Department of Environmental Protection to put in place, with public input, agency rules to fairly and effectively govern the inspection and certification process.
Any continued delay in taking action on this matter only causes uncertainty within affected industries and the families that rely on them for employment.
Meanwhile, the DEP will move forward with creating an inventory and conducting a risk assessment of above ground storage tanks statewide.
As of now, as many as 40,000 tanks in West Virginia must be registered with the state by Oct. 1 and certified inspections of those tanks have to be completed by Jan. 1. The state Department of Environmental Protection has not yet finalized the inspection protocols and, DEP officials have said, it could be December before those guidelines are available.
After appearing at times to actually care about drinking water protections, the Daily Mail editorial page is back to its old self, and repeating the same misinformation West Virginians are getting from MetroNews:
But the biggest issue is the uncertainty facing storage tank operators as the Department of Environmental Protection, the agency charged with enforcing the law, has yet to define the inspection parameters for storage tanks. Once it does, operators of the estimated 40,000 storage tanks affected by the law are unlikely to have time to complete their inspections by the Jan. 1 deadline.
It’s simply false to say that DEP has not yet issued “inspection protocols” or defined “the inspection parameters.” Officials at DEP, working very hard under tough deadlines and constant pressure from industry, published guidance for tank owners spelling out what should be examined in these inspections. It’s right here on the agency’s website. There’s a checklist for what the inspections should include and there are forms (see here and here) to use in certifying to DEP that you’ve done these inspections and your tanks are safe.
And DEP was very, very clear about how this is going to work for the initial inspections due Jan. 1 and for future annual inspections:
For the certification due on or before January 1, 2015, compliance with a nationally recognized tank standard such API or STI following the attached checklist shall be deemed compliance with the requirements. Subsequent Annual Certifications will be required to comply fully with legislative rules promulgated by the Secretary.