Sustained Outrage

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

West Virginia is among the states featured in the latest ProPublica report on oil and gas drilling regulation, State Oil and Gas Regulators are Spread Too Thin to Do Their Jobs. The story starts out:

Larry Parrish knew something was wrong as soon as he wheeled his state-owned pickup off the West Virginia highway and onto the rocky field where the natural gas well was supposed to be. Oak trees 18 inches in diameter looked dead as boards, and brush as brown as kindling stretched across a piece of farmland the size of a football field.

The dead zone in this otherwise lush mountain country meant one thing to Parrish: Gas drillers had been illegally dumping briny water mixed with chemicals, and the waste had killed everything from the rusty well head all the way downhill into a creek. The worst part, Parrish said, was that the devastation could have been avoided if the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection had had enough inspectors to make sure the state’s growing number of gas wells were checked regularly.

“It was sad — sickening,” said Parrish, a former field inspector for the DEP’s office of oil and gas. “It probably had been years since anybody had been out there.”

West Virginia has added a handful of people to oversee its growing drilling industry since Parrish retired in 2006, but other than that not much has changed. For the state’s 17 inspectors to visit West Virginia’s 55,222 wells once a year, they would have to inspect nine wells a day, every day of the year — no weekends, no vacations.

“We are doing what we can do,” said Gene Smith, a regulatory compliance manager for West Virginia. “But that still leaves thousands of wells that are not inspected yearly or even every decade.”

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Gas drilling pollution: Do lawmakers want answers?

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The dangers of water pollution from gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale have been made abundantly clear by the reporting of the folks at ProPublica and by local problems like the bill spill from a drilling site in Doddridge County discussed here last week.

But are West Virginia lawmakers really interested in finding solutions to these problems?

This morning, the Joint Legislative Oversight Commission on State Water Resources listed on its agenda a presentation by Ken Kirk, executive vice president of production for EQT Corp., one of the big players in Marcellus drilling.  According to the agenda, Kirk was to appear for a:

… Discussion of [his] Company’s recent contract with [a] wastewater disposal facility to receive an process Marcellus gas well wastewater for all the Company’s drilling operations in West Virginia.

Kirk briefed lawmakers on EQT’s deal with AOP Clearwater, which is building a plant in Marion County that will remove metals, salts and other pollutants from the wastewater created when drillers “frac” rocks underground to get out the oil and gas.

manchin_tim.jpgCommittee Co-Chairman Tim Manchin, D-Marion, asked a pretty simple question: What does this plant do with the metals, salts and other pollutants it takes out of gas drilling wastewater?

Kirk refused to answer. He said the plant and the process belonged to AOP Clearwater, and that company would have to provide that information. All Kirk would say is that these pollutants would be disposed of in a “regulatorily acceptable manner.”

If there was anybody from AOP Clearwater at the meeting, they didn’t step up to explain or to answer Manchin’s question.

And the amazing thing was … Manchin just let it go, and then at the end of the meeting praised EQT Corp. for doing such a great thing for West Virginia:

The state of West Virginia appreciates your company taking these steps to make this water environmentally friendly.

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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.”

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Chief Logan drilling: Where is the W.Va. DNR?

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Late last week, we reported on efforts by several state environmental groups and a former state parks director to intervene in the ongoing litigation over efforts to open dozens of new oil and gas drilling wells in Chief Logan State Park.

That case had previously been headed for the state Supreme Court, where the state Department of Environmental Protection had promised to appeal a ruling that overturned its denial of Cabot Oil and Gas permit applications.

But still conspicuously absent from the legal fray is the state Division of Natural Resources,  the agency charged with overseeing — and protecting — West Virginia’s state parks, and the agency specifically prohibited by state law from allowing “the exploitation of minerals or the harvesting of timber for commercial purposes in any state park.”

Cabot applied to DEP’s oil and gas office for the drilling permits, and then-DEP Secretary Stephanie Timmermeyer denied the application, citing the DNR law prohibiting drilling. But DNR never intervened in the case.

Now, along with their own effort to intervene, the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, the Friends of Blackwater and former parks chief Cordie Hudkins are asking DNR to get involved. In this letter, sent Friday to DNR Director Frank Jezioro,  environmental group lawyer Todd asked the agency to intervene in the case. Rodd argued that if the previous ruling, by Logan Circuit Judge Roger Perry, is allowed to stand, it would be a disaster for the parks system:

If this unprecedented, radical, extremist view gains legal sway, the result will be the wholesale degradation of one of the jewels of our Mountain State — our magnificent State Park system. Thousands of users of West Virginia State Parks are deeply concerned that the failure to have the issue of the exploration for and commercial extraction of privately owned minerals that are located under state-owned State Park land addressed based on a full record, with the full participation of your agency — the agency that manages and advocates for those parks — places the magnificent and unspoiled beauty of West Virginia’s state parks system in jeopardy.

I tried to check in with Jezioro for a reaction to this letter, and I was told he is out of the office until next week.


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We ran an Associated Press story earlier in the week about an apparent trend by states to open up their public parks to oil and gas drilling as a way of padding weak revenues.

The AP article came up with this trend by citing moves in four states — Ohio, Arkansas, Pennsylvania, and New Mexico — to begin drilling. It did not say  what the rules are in other states, and specifically said that “no organization tracks drilling that falls within the boundary of state parks, or how much oil and gas can be pulled from that land.”

AP reporter Julie Carr Smyth also cited West Virginia, noting that:

In July, a circuit court judge in West Virginia ruled against the state environmental protection agency’s attempt to block drilling under Chief Logan State Park.

But here’s a bit of an update from that story, and from the AP story last month about the ruling in the Chief Logan case by Logan Circuit Judge Roger L. Perry:

The Manchin administration has promised to appeal Perry’s decision to the state Supreme Court, and to fight any effort by Cabot Oil & Gas Co. to begin its drilling project before that appeal is considered.

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Pa. going over W.Va.’s head on Mon River pollution

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization.

Our neighbors to the north are apparently growing tired of West Virginia’s inaction — or action through only baby steps — to deal with the potential water pollution problems from disposal of “pit fluids” from large-scale oil and gas drilling.

According to a story over the weekend by Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reporter Don Hopey,  Pennsylvania authorities have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to step in and set tougher pollution limits for Monongahela River.

Pennsylvania DEP Secretary John Hanger told Hopey that his state has issued orders limiting the discharges of total dissolved solids, or TDS, in the Mon — and, perhaps more importantly, has started the lengthy process of drafting new regulatory controls. But, Hanger said, West Virginia hasn’t done likewise. Hanger told Hopey:

We’re not satisfied with the response we’ve received from West Virginia and are engaging the EPA. Because at the end of the day, without federal involvement, we may not get the kind of cooperation needed to solve this problem. I personally have concerns that the posture of West Virginia on this matter is not aggressive enough.

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Gas drilling update: DEP proposing tougher rules

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Well site during active drilling to the Marcelllus Shale formation in Upshur County, West Virginia, in 2008. Photo copyright West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

It’s been a while since we updated readers on  the growing concerns about pollution from oil and gas drilling operations in West Virginia (See Gas drilling damage I, Gas drilling damage II and Gas drilling damage III).

But last month, the state Department of Environmental Protection proposed some rule changes that are at least a beginning step toward more closely regulating the biggest concern: Water pollution from the “pit fluids,” the huge amounts of water used to fracture rock and release gas, especially from the wells drilling into the Marcellus Shale formation.

The comment period on the DEP proposal  ended last night with a public hearing. I’m told that a ton of industry lobbyists attended, but none of them got up to make public statements. Behind the scenes, though, the industry is strongly opposing the rule changes. Perhaps that will come out today, when the issue is scheduled to be discussed during legislative interim meetings (1 p.m., House Government Organization Committee Room, 215 E).

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