Company May Be Responsible

Could be source of bentonite found in Ohio River

Wheeling WV  Intelligencer
13 May 2011
By Casey Junkins, Staff Writer

WELLSBURG - MarkWest Liberty officials said the natural gas processing company "might be" responsible for the bentonite spill in Buffalo Creek this week.

The creek runs east to west from Washington County, Pa., through Brooke County before emptying into the Ohio River at Wellsburg. MarkWest Manager of Environmental Regulatory Affairs Robert Hale said his company noticed the cloudy water in a Pennsylvania portion of the creek "near an area where a MarkWest contractor had completed a pipeline borehole on May 2, more than seven days previous."

He said the company - which also operates the cryogenic gas processing plant near Majorsville in eastern Marshall County - "immediately" reported this murky water in the creek to the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection on Monday.

"The cloudy water was noticed by MarkWest on the afternoon of Monday, May 9 while conducting a routine inspection of the area, and observations showed that the condition was limited to a short distance downstream," he said.

Hale is not certain the source of the murky water reported in the Pennsylvania portion of the stream is the same as the one reported by a Brooke County fisherman late Monday. He said, though, that "media reports that a 'foamy substance' was found several miles downstream in West Virginia" may have a connection to the MarkWest operations in Pennsylvania.

"It is unclear whether there is any connection at this time," Hale noted. "That said, MarkWest is working with the appropriate regulatory agencies in Pennsylvania and will be contacting West Virginia authorities to determine what, if any, impact our operations could have had on the creek and water quality in the area or if the two separate events are related in any way."

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said this week the clay-like substance bentonite was detected in the Ohio River, which receives water from Buffalo Creek. Natural gas drillers commonly use bentonite to thicken their drilling mud to help seal the wells.

According to a Material Safety Data Sheet, exposure to bentonite may cause skin, eye, gastrointestinal or respiratory irritation.

However, Pennsylvania DEP spokesman Kevin Sunday said bentonite "has no health risks associated with it and is often used in private water well constructions and other places where water sealant is needed. The foaming agent possesses no toxic risks." He said the clay and foaming agent settled into nearby streambanks and groundwaters after being "displaced during the inadvertent return."

"The rapid flow and turbid waters, combined with the clay and foaming agent, caused the cloudiness and bubbling that was reported on May 9-10," Sunday said.

Sunday added the investigation is ongoing, noting Pennsylvania and West Virginia regulators are working with MarkWest on the issue.

Cosco said Brooke County officials notified the West Virginia environmental department of the apparent spill.

Sunday did not respond to an inquiry about when the Pennsylvania agency notified Mountain State regulators of any possible spill.