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.”