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Gas drilling distance buffer not far enough, researcher says

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Legislators need to reconsider a key part of Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin's natural gas drilling law if they want to provide adequate public health protections for residents in the Marcellus Shale region, a West Virginia University researcher told lawmakers Monday.

Michael McCawley, interim chairman of WVU's Department of Occupational and Environmental Health Sciences, said language that prohibits drilling sites within 625 feet of occupied dwellings does not make sense for protecting the public.

McCawley explained that the so-called "setback" provision measures the 625-feet prohibition from the center point of drilling permits, wrongly assuming that emissions all come from sources at that center point.

"Nothing could be further from the truth," he said. "The setback distance does not keep things from happening."

McCawley testified Monday to the Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary. He discussed a series of studies he helped prepare for the DEP, which was required by law to report back to lawmakers on certain issues regarding the state's boom in Marcellus drilling.

Specifically, he provided air sampling data to help examine whether the setback provision was adequate to protect nearby residents from noise, light, dust and air pollution from volatile organic compounds.

In summarizing McCawley's work for lawmakers, DEP officials emphasized that the research found "no indications of a public health emergency or threat," and agency officials proposed no additional drilling rules.

But DEP officials also said in their summary that "there are a wide variety" of well pad sizes and configurations, meaning that measuring the 625-foot setback from the center of the pad "may allow an occupied dwelling to be closer" than that to drilling operations.

As an example, McCawley noted that at one location where he found the highest pollutant levels, both his monitors and a drilling company flare -- used to burn off excess flammable gases -- were located 625 feet from the center of the well pad.

"You could have a flare literally right outside somebody's bedroom window under the setback," McCawley said. "I don't know that any company would do that on purpose. But it would be legal."

Also, McCawley noted that the setback provision treats all locations equally, not taking into account the potential for some gas drilling sites in narrow hollows to be subject to weather inversions that trap pollutants near the ground.

McCawley said DEP officials were correct when they told lawmakers his data showed no public health emergencies. He said he found no violations of national air quality standards.

"I want to make sure that nobody takes away the wrong message, that there are things out there that are an imminent danger," he said.

But McCawley said he did find locations where pollutant levels, especially for toxic benzene, violated public health guidelines published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

"It is in the report," McCawley said. "DEP has not tried to cover this up or hide it from anybody. It is kind of hard to find. It's in the back of the report."

The DEP has suggested lawmakers could consider changing the setback provision so that the 625-foot distance was measured from what they called the "limit of disturbance," or the outmost sediment control barrier at each well pad.

But McCawley recommended instead that more air-quality monitoring be done at drilling sites, and that the data be used, along with public health guidelines, to require the best pollution control systems be used by industry.

"This would be a more practical approach," McCawley said.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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