Local committee on the trail of Marcellus Shale
Members of Morgan County’s Marcellus Shale Committee took a fact-finding trip to shale drilling and gas well operations in Wetzel County on Saturday, October 15.
The committee, which is studying shale gas drilling and its possible impact here, will eventually report their findings and recommendations to the Morgan County Commissioners.
Rose Baker and Ed Wade, Jr. of the Wetzel County Action Group led the tour. Multiple well and gas compressor sites were visited.
The Wetzel County Action Group is a citizens group that monitors shale gas operations and reports accidents and violations to local officials and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection.
Four members of the Marcellus Shale Committee – Jim Hoyt, Brenda Hutchinson, Larry Schultz and Tim Seims – made the three and half hour drive to Wetzel County. They were accompanied by Steve Hutchinson, Cathy Hoyt and this reporter.
Located along the Ohio River on northwestern edge of the state, Wetzel County has about the same population as Morgan County, but it is spread over a larger area.
The central part of the county, where the tour was conducted, was hilly and mountainous with only secondary roads, many of which were unpaved. The area where the drilling and well operations are taking place is rural, mostly made up of small farms and campsites.
Heavy truck traffic
From I-79 in Morgantown, it was a 30-mile drive on a winding two-lane road to reach the area. Near the destination, dump trucks and large tanker trucks were on the road.
Asked about the truck traffic, Baker said her group has documented over 300 truck accidents in the five years Chesapeake Energy has worked in the area.
She said there are now two more towing companies in town due to the increased number of truck accidents.
Rose Baker said the heaviest traffic was in 2008-2009 when Chesapeake Energy had 12 drilling rigs working at the same time, 24 hours a day. Their group counted 1,200 to 1,500 trucks daily during drilling operations.
Because some roads are too narrow for both a car and a large truck, the car driver is usually forced to back up until the truck can pass.
“These people come in here and show us no respect,” Baker said.
The first stop was a truck staging area just west of Wileyville. Chesapeake Energy leased the staging area after numerous complaints by residents of roads being blocked by trucks waiting to get into a drill site, Baker said.
Another concession by Chesapeake was to provide vehicles to safely escort school buses past the numerous heavy trucks.
Brock Road is the main access to the gas well sites and to some homes and farms. The steep 18% grade has been repaved three times because of damage from heavy trucks, Baker said.
She said the Division of Highways is unable to keep up with maintenance and tasked Chesapeake with the repaving. Along the edge of the 8-mile road, the asphalt dropoff is 8-to-10 inches without a berm.
On the way to a drilling site, the tour group passed a tanker truck spraying water on the roadway. “Potable Water” was written on the truck’s side.
Baker said the company claims they are spraying fresh water to keep down the dust, but she fears they may be spraying wastewater from the drilling process.
At Dewey Teel’s farm
The first drilling pad visited was on top of a ridge on what used to be Dewey Teel’s farm.
Teel, a bearded, middle-aged man wearing work boots and blue jeans, said he had no warning before construction of the site began.
“They just showed up one day and plowed my garden over the mountain side,” Teel said.
Baker explained that most people in the county had sold their mineral rights years ago when times were bad.
Ed Wade, the other tour guide, said drilling permits are issued by the state without onsite inspections. “They just rubber stamp the permits.
Surface owners have little of any rights here,” Wade said.
The drilling and well site consists of two well heads, two cylindrical storage tanks that hold waste water separated from the gas and a compressor station. As the tanks fill up, the water is removed by tanker trucks.
The compressor station pressurizes the gas so it can be forced down a pipeline to a central compressor station elsewhere.
Teel said that as soon as they drilled the first well and started “fracking” the shale, he noticed his spring started bubbling. His pony has since refused to drink the spring water.
Fracking – technically known as hydraulic fracturing — involves pumping a combination of water, sand and hundreds of unknown chemicals and compounds at high pressure down the well hole in order to fracture the shale and release the trapped gas.
The chemicals and compounds are mostly unknown because the companies are not required by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to disclose them.
However, a report released in April by a staff member of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Energy & Commerce stated: “Between 2005 and 2009, the 14 leading oil and gas service companies used more than 2,500 hydraulic fracturing products containing 750 chemicals and other compounds.”
Some 29 of the chemicals are “known human carcinogens.”
Dewey Teel said his water well is now contaminated and he has to truck his water in from New Martinsville, 16 miles away.
Teel received a onetime payment of $15,000 from Chesapeake Energy for use of three acres for the drilling pad. He still pays the property taxes and cannot use the land.
Despite the windy day, there was a faint smell of gas in the air around the drilling pad. Wade said the compressor station vents methane gas through three smoke stack-like structures.
Huge amounts of water
It takes three million to five million gallons of water to frack one well. There are 38 gas drilling and well sites in Wetzel County with over 140 drill holes, said Baker who provided a map showing the locations.
Subcontractors for Chesapeake Energy initially pumped water out of local streams. “All our stream levels decreased or dried up and they all became dirty,” Baker said.
Wade said subcontractors were allowed to pump 270,000 gallons a day from streams without getting a permit. No state officials are checking.
“You have to watch them like a hawk,” Wade said.
Baker said water wells have been contaminated for over a mile from gas drilling sites.
Because of the high cost of testing for the large number of possible chemicals, local residents don’t have the resources to get their water tested and prove the source of the contamination.
Gas companies are only required to test the water before and after fracking in wells within 1,000 feet of the drill site. The Wetzel County Action Group would like to see the regulations changed to require testing of wells at least up to one mile from drill sites.
Baker said 12 local residents with contaminated wells have filed a class action lawsuit against Chesapeake Energy.
“Everywhere they have been, they have contaminated water,” Wade said.
Some lawsuits have been settled out of court.
Another problem cited was wastewater containment. During the fracking operation, some of the contaminated water backflows to the surface. The drilling company has to have a containment pond lined with plastic to hold the contaminated water.
The containment ponds fail and contaminated water runs into local streams that eventually feed into the Ohio River, Wade said.
He cited documented cases of contractors pumping water from drilling pads directly into local streams after a heavy rain.
By the summer of 2010, Chesapeake Energy had installed a 16,000-ft. pipeline from the Ohio River and no longer pumps water out of local streams.
Baker and Wade claimed that air quality has deteriorated. They attributed this to the venting of gas, the drilling process and the exhaust from heavy trucks.
The Wetzel County Action Group would like to see a requirement that drilling companies install vapor recovery units at every well to prevent venting of gas into the environment.
Wade talked about what happens after a well is drilled and fracked. The fracking releases natural gas from the shale, but some of the millions of gallons of water and chemicals used to frack shale remain in the well hole.
When the gas first escapes, the pressure from the released gas blows contaminated water and gas back up the well hole, Wade said.
The contaminated gas, sand, chemical and water mixture is lit and flares until the gas burns clear. Then the well is capped. Not all of the contaminated gas and chemicals are burned and some are expelled into the air.
Baker said the process of bleeding a well sometimes lasts days. During this time, there is a strong sulfur smell in the air and those downwind can’t open their windows.
Location of pads
The Wetzel County Action Group has twice stopped Chesapeake Energy from drilling in a flood zone by reporting the activity to the State Department of Environmental Protection.
In one case, a farmer prevented drilling in a field by building a small house and drilling a water well where Chesapeake wanted to construct a drilling pad.
The contractor was forced to move the drilling operation to another spot on the farm nearer a stream, but was stopped by environmental officials after a report by the Action Group, Baker said.
The drilling, well and compressor sites on the tour were all located on hills, apparently to avoid floodplain issues. Wade said drilling companies just bulldoze the top of the hills flat, pushing the dirt over the side.
“There are no engineering inspections by the state to make sure the land is stable,” he said.
Several of the dozen sites visited had what Baker and Wade called “slips” or mud slides down the hillsides, allowing contamination to drain into local streams.
Another regulation the group wants to see is approval by a certified engineer of site plans before a site is constructed, and an engineering inspection afterwards.
“The state has only 12 inspectors to inspect some 50,000 drill sites and those inspectors are also responsible for inspecting the coal mines,” Wade said.
Baker said there are so many people doing title searches for mineral rights that you can barely get into the courthouse in New Martinsville some days.
As far as creating jobs, Baker said Chesapeake Energy has only hired 17 local people in the five years of operation. She did admit some local contractors had been hired. Wade knew of two local contractors working for the company.
Most of the dump trucks and tanker trucks seen were registered in Pennsylvania where shale gas drilling has been going on for some time.
Wade said Chesapeake Energy brings in their own crews for the drilling. Hotels, motels, rental properties and campsites are filled, he said.
Baker said the downside is that locals and tourists can be priced out of the market. One campsite has increased the monthly rent from $150 to $700, she said.
Drill sites use so much limestone as paving for roads and drilling pads that local supplies have been exhausted. Limestone is trucked in from new pits in Ohio.
Learn about contracts
Some landowners profit from selling rights-of-way for the pipelines that connect the well sites to the central compressor and pumping stations.
Wade maintained that even this process is flawed and uneven.
A pipeline right-of-way is 100-to-150 ft. wide and all trees and brush are removed. Subcontractors either chip the trees and haul it away or burn it onsite. If landowners don’t specify chipping in the contract, subcontractors will burn because it is cheaper, adding to air quality problems in the area.
Wade said landowners are offered $15-to-$20 a foot for pipeline rights-of-way and often take the money. Both he and Baker have refused to allow pipelines across their properties.
Wade has negotiated on behalf of other landowners and gotten them $30 to $35 per foot, angering some who took the first offer.
The public needs to be educated to make sure they specify every detail in a contract, Wade and Baker said.
For example, if you don’t specify that only one pipeline is allowed across your property, the companies may cut more without paying more, Wade said.
“The best defense against abuses is a camera or a video camera. You need to document everything before you report it,” he said.
Chesapeake Energy is only one of several companies drilling for gas in Wetzel County. Asked how Chesapeake Energy rated against the others, Wade said, “Chesapeake is the best of the worst.”