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Citizen groups seek more drilling protections

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Citizen groups are pressing West Virginia lawmakers to enact more restrictions to protect residents who live in the midst of the state's boom in natural gas production.

Representatives of the West Virginia Environmental Council and the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organization say the results of recent state-sponsored studies show the need for more action.

Dave McMahon, a lobbyist for the surface owners group, reminded lawmakers this week that state regulators declined to propose tougher restrictions themselves, saying that the state studies showed "no indications of a public health emergency."

"We don't think they should wait for an emergency," McMahon said. "We think they should improve people's quality of living right now."

McMahon and Don Garvin, lead lobbyist for the environmental council, appeared Monday before a monthly interim meeting of the Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary.

Over the last few months, the panel has heard testimony about reports looking at air quality, waste disposal and other issues related to the boom in natural gas production in the state's Marcellus Shale region.

Lawmakers mandated the reports when they passed a drilling bill promoted by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin during a special session two years ago this month. Legislators and the governor weakened some key parts of the bill but said they could revisit those issues based on the results of the mandated studies.

One study found consistent and potentially significant problems with the way oil and gas companies build drilling waste pits and with how state regulators inspect those impoundments.

Another study found that language in the new law that prohibits drilling sites within 625 feet of occupied dwellings does not make sense for protecting the public.

Other recent studies have found a lack of data on what companies are doing with drilling waste and a need for increasing the rights of surface landowners who don't also control mineral rights beneath their homes. Lawmakers did not mandate those studies, but were briefed earlier this year on the results.

Also, the state Department of Commerce has in each of the last two years produced a report on Marcellus drilling jobs but without the legislatively mandated data on whether workers in the industry live in West Virginia or come from out of state.

Garvin noted that even the state Department of Environmental Protection had urged lawmakers to revisit the 625-foot "setback" provision of the 2011 law.

In October, West Virginia University researcher Michael McCawley told lawmakers that the setback provision measures the 625-foot prohibition from the center point of drilling permits, wrongly assuming that emissions all come from sources at that center point.

And DEP officials have said that "there are a wide variety" of well pad sizes and configurations, meaning that measuring the setback from the center of the pad "may allow an occupied dwelling to be closer" than that to the drilling operations.

The DEP 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.

During a committee meeting Monday, Garvin said that if lawmakers are intent on using only a setback provision, they should increase the buffer zone between drilling and homes to 1,500 feet. But, Garvin said, his group prefers the more comprehensive approach suggested by McCawley.

"Setbacks alone are not sufficient," Garvin said.

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


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