CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A federal judge in Wheeling this week issued a temporary restraining order against Chesapeake Energy in one of three pending cases that challenge widespread waste-dumping practices of northern West Virginia's growing natural gas industry.
U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp blocked Chesapeake from hauling contaminated soil out of a waste pit it built on a Wetzel County couple's property while the couple pursues its demand for a more comprehensive cleanup plan.
Larry and Jana Rine allege that Chesapeake unlawfully disposed of drilling wastes in the pit, then buried it and planned to leave it on a 210-acre property the Rines use as a part-time home and hunting camp at Silver Hill, east of New Martinsville.
Now, they allege, the company is using repair of a slip on its well pad as an excuse to haul away the wastes and potentially cover up what was really dumped into the pit.
Preliminary testing found the soil contained diesel fuel, benzene and a variety of other contaminants, court records show.
In a suit filed late last year, the Rines argued that it's not "reasonably necessary" -- the legal test for activities allowed by state natural gas laws -- for Chesapeake to leave a buried waste dump in order to extract the gas it owns beneath the Rine property.
"These cases are just common sense and common law," said Brian Glasser, a Charleston lawyer who represents the Rines and has filed two other, similar cases against Chesapeake. "You can't bury a bunch of waste in somebody's yard. It's that simple."
If successful, the lawsuits could force major changes in the way companies handle the huge amounts of wastes generated as they rush to drill for natural gas in the lucrative Marcellus Shale formation.
Chesapeake denies any wrongdoing and, in court documents, says a permit issued by the state Department of Environmental Protection's Office of Oil and Gas authorized its activities.
Company officials declined to be interviewed, but Chesapeake spokeswoman Jacque Bland said in a prepared statement, "Chesapeake does believe that its activities are prudent and entirely within its lease and property rights."
In their push for more natural gas, drilling operators are increasingly using a process called hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart rock and release the gas. West Virginia political leaders are hoping this practice expands as gas companies seek to tap into vast reserves in the Marcellus Shale, a formation that stretches from 95,000 square miles from southern New York and into eastern Ohio.
Even before the Marcellus Shale was targeted, many surface landowners in West Virginia complained about their dealings with oil and gas operators. When residents don't own the oil and gas beneath their land, companies that do can generally take whatever steps are "reasonably necessary" to drill for that oil and gas.