CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- In early January, as I walked through a hay field in the bottom land along Big Run in Tyler County, I tried to avoid stepping in big blobs of black goo next to a Marcellus Shale gas well pad. It was cold, and the new snow at the edges made the black sludge from a recently exploded tank easily visible.
It was a stark contrast of smelly, slimy black and clean snowy white. Liquid contents of the tank had already percolated into the soil. A conductivity test in the standing puddles gave off-the chart readings. Probably a lot is still there in the soil. A mixed brew of strong hydrocarbon vapors was in the air, and they filled the valley for the next two days. At least until the rain.
Little did I know that I was experiencing a small foretaste of similar conditions on the Elk River, soon to bring embarrassing national attention to Charleston, Kanawha County and all of West Virginia.
However, right in front of me that Friday afternoon of Jan. 3, I knew there was also a serious risk to the surface water a few feet away. I stood a few feet from the well pad, splattered with gunk, and also a few feet from the flowing stream of Big Run. Big Run flows into Indian Creek, which shortly flows into the long Middle Island Creek only a few miles upstream from the city water intake for the town of Middlebourne, the county seat of Tyler.
It was about 16 hours after the explosion as we took a lot of photographs to document the damage to the well pad and extent of the material dispersed over the pad and hayfield. The explosion happened late on Thursday, Jan 2.
There had been six big steel tanks on the gas well pad, each capable of holding about 8,000 gallons. They were interconnected and sat in a row on an unlined area. Dirt was piled up around the edges to retard any leaks. Hydraulic fracturing was in progress. The well pad explosion blew the bottom off the last tank, then threw it over a few tractor trailer frack pumps and into the hillside.
It was less than a week before the strong smell along the Elk River would raise concerns in Kanawha County.
Here in Tyler County, I thought Middlebourne's water supply would be safe. I was wrong. I knew it was forecast to get very cold and unlikely to rain. I was wrong. I assumed that a full environmental cleanup crew would soon be on site. Wrong again. I was hopeful, given the magnitude of the risk and the nearness of the stream, and the highly visible location, that there would be a complete, swift and well coordinated clean up response. I was totally wrong. It took four days for some state agency to tell someone to do something.
I could not return to the well pad soon, but I kept in contact with the landowner. I had previously arranged to attend a public meeting at the Legislature and then spend two days at the state Department of Environmental Protection. The water was still safe in Charleston while I was there.
As the weather changed, the huge cold front moving in early Jan. 6 dumped more than half an inch of rain in Tyler County. I received a panicked phone call from the nearby landowner. Water was flowing down through the hayfield. The creek was up. The contamination was washing into the stream on its way to Middlebourne.
Cleanup did not start for four days, and for four days no one told the town Middlebourne about the explosion and pollution coming their way.
I know it is hard to believe, but the state's industry friendly gas well permitting guidelines allowed the well pad to be located in a floodplain and very close to the stream. You would think we would know better by now. We looked the other way. We always do.
This well pad in a floodplain is not the only one. Six tanks on an unlined well pad, near a creek bank in a floodplain? Did we go to sleep? What's wrong here? And what was in the tanks? We don't know. How much was in the tanks? We don't know. Why was there no impermeable liner under the tanks? We don't know. Had this arrangement been inspected? We don't know. How much contamination washed into the Middle Island watershed? We just don't know.
However, we do know the tank contents must have been volatile. It did explode with enough force to blow the bottom off the tank, and then rocket launch an 8,000-gallon steel tank over a few big trucks. Given the nasty fumes from the residue it was presumably toxic and should have been contained immediately and kept out of the surface water. No labels on the tanks. No vent pipes on the tanks until after the explosion. No valves on the tanks to isolate them. Inadequate, infrequent, toothless inspections.
Residents of Charleston, does this sound familiar?