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W.Va. Marcellus rule filed amid inaction criticism

CHARLESTON, W.Va. (AP) -- West Virginia regulators filed an emergency rule Monday that would temporarily require Marcellus shale natural gas drillers to detail how they will protect area land, manage the large volumes of water involved, respond to accidents, and notify the public in advance of operations.

Ordered by acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin last month, the rule would last 15 months once approved by the Secretary of State. The rule is meant to provide some regulatory oversight while a special legislative committee attempts to craft permanent and more wide-ranging rules for Marcellus drilling. With the industry at odds with environmental and surface rights groups over what those rules should say, a compromise bill eluded lawmakers during the year's regular session.

Those groups held events in Charleston and Morgantown on Monday to blast both Tomblin and legislators. Among other concerns, they say that the executive doesn't tackle light or noise pollution from well sites, keeping wells away from homes, or the rights of surface owners.

"(Tomblin's order) is nothing but political bluster, which provides no authority that the DEP didn't already have, anyway,'' Frank Young president of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said at the Charleston event. "It only serves as political cover for doing nothing.''

The Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia was more welcoming of Monday's rule. Association President John Haskins praised both Tomblin and DEP Secretary Randy Huffman for what he termed a careful approach to the issue.

"The implementation of his Executive Order through the rules filed today will pave the way for continued investment and jobs in West Virginia,'' Haskins said in a statement.

The natural gas industry believes a huge reserve sits trapped in the mile-deep Marcellus shale, a massive rock formation that stretches beneath West Virginia and other states. Tapping it can require an unconventional horizontal drilling method as well as hydraulic fracturing. Also known as fracking, that process relies on water drawn from area sources that's mixed with chemicals and sand and then pumped into wells to crack the rock.

Operators face considerable up-front costs, but promise that developing the field will yield jobs and economic activity for West Virginia. Critics question those boasts. They also cite the potential threat to area land and water supplies from fracking fluid. Related concerns include water sources depleted for fracking, the storing and disposing of frack fluid, and damage to rural roads by convoys of drill rigs and water trucks.

Monday's rule calls for drillers to supply engineer-certified plans for building well sites and for controlling erosion and sediment runoff. Operators that will frack with more than 210,000 gallons of water in a month must describe where they will get the water from and when, what chemicals they plan to add to it, and how they will dispose of the fracking fluid afterward.

Once drilled, operators must sheath the well's walls in cement for at least its first 300 feet. This casing must extend at least 50 feet below any underground water sources, which typically sit much closer to the surface than the Marcellus field. The casing must be strong enough to withstand the pressure from hydraulic fracturing, and at least 1,200 pounds per square inch of pressure.

Shoddy casings have been blamed for the tainting of water supplies in neighboring Pennsylvania by methane leaking from Marcellus wells.

Well sites that disturb three or more acres require safety plans. These must detail the chemicals and other materials at the site, identify all schools and public facilities within one mile, and provide contact information for those locations as well as for the operator, local inspectors, DEP and area first responders. They must also explain how a well site and surrounding area would be evacuated during an emergency.

Operators seeking to drill within a municipal boundary must give 30-day notice to the public through a newspaper legal ad before they can receive the needed permit. Four West Virginia communities had enacted Marcellus bans. A lawsuit has blocked one of those, while a second has been rescinded and a third is facing repeal as well.

The various stakeholders in this issue appear to agree that the DEP rule cannot go as far as legislation. Lawmakers must update legal definitions of drilling, for instance, and increase permit fees or otherwise create revenues for the additional gas field inspectors needed.

But speakers at Monday's Charleston and Morgantown events argued that Tomblin's order could have gone farther but didn't. Each drew about a dozen people. Held at the state Capitol, those at the Charleston event included members of a Jackson County family suing over the alleged contamination of their well water by gas wells. Speakers there cited other families -- a couple in Taylor County, for instance, and a sheep farming family in Wetzel County -- who allege drilling has ruined their water or land.

Those at the Morgantown event, held at a riverfront park, included Dr. Larry Schwab of the Mon Valley Clean Air Coalition. He said the International Journal of Human and Ecological Risk Assessment will soon publish a peer-reviewed study that he says has identified more than 600 chemicals associated with Marcellus drilling operations. A fourth of those have known adverse health effects, Schwab said.

"We're dealing in a giant human biological experiment with this exercise,'' Schwab said.


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