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.