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Carol Warren: Gas drilling poses threat to people, environment

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- "We built it ourselves. It was our dream home, and we've had to abandon it," Lisa Parr began. "We got so sick we couldn't live there anymore." Her story is by no means unique. The People's Oil and Gas Summit in Pittsburgh in November featured numerous heart-wrenching stories from real people whose health, livelihoods, and lives were ruined by the effects of gas drilling.

Although Parr lives in Texas, where the Barnett shale is being exploited, the same companies are operating in West Virginia, drilling in the Marcellus shale. Increased regulation and accountability are essential.

"First there were the nosebleeds," Parr continued. "My husband, our 8-year-old daughter, all of us had them." Then she became weak and had memory lapses. They all had rashes. They began to suspect the problems were related to emissions from the gas wells down the road, not even on their property. "Finally, my husband had an aneurysm. Fortunately, he survived, but we knew we couldn't live there anymore, so we moved. We are now slowly getting better."

Studies by MacArthur Genius Award winner Dr. Wilma Subra have shown that people in communities where there is gas drilling and production often have a dozen or more of the chemicals used in the process in their blood. Dr. Dan Volz, of the Center for Healthy Environment and Communities, at the University of Pittsburgh, stated that even if levels of individual chemicals or volatile organics in the air or water are each within a range considered safe, "No one, and I repeat, no one, knows the cumulative effect on human health of drinking or breathing a number of those chemicals at the same time. The data is not there. But absence of data does not indicate absence of risk."

The gas companies like to paint the Marcellus shale boom as a wonderful opportunity for our state. Perhaps it is for some. If we are to believe Nick Casey's Jan. 3 op-ed, a law permitting forced pooling, which the gas companies want, is the only regulation currently needed.

But the industry studiously neglects to mention what is happening to people in other areas of the country where natural gas drilling and production have been taking place. Health and neurological problems, loss of water supplies, an industrialized landscape, damage to soil and water, air-quality issues, and country roads ruined by heavy truck traffic are only a few. Some people have lost the insurance on their homes because the insurance company considered their property toxic and too risky to insure.

There are two bills to improve regulation that could be considered by the Legislature during the 2011 session -- one offered by the DEP and the other developed by a Judiciary subcommittee.

Pushback from the industry has been fierce. It is perhaps only a coincidence that during last month's interim session, the committee considering these measures could not field a quorum, even though the room was packed with concerned citizens. It isn't yet too late for West Virginia to prevent the tragedies that have occurred in other areas of our country, and that are beginning to occur in the northern part of our own state. But our Legislature must act now to ensure that gas drilling is done responsibly.

Warren lives in Webster Springs.


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