Professor Wants Air Emissions Regulated
Extreme Levels of Benzene Floating Around
25 August 2013
By Casey Junkins, Staff Writer
NEW MARTINSVILLE - Levels of carcinogenic benzene in the air 625
feet away from one natural gas drill site were so bad that a West
Virginia University professor said he would recommend "respiratory
Although these extreme levels of benzene lasted for only about
three hours at one particular site, Michael McCawley, chairman of
the Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences
in the School of Public Health at WVU, said the readings show that
air emissions from Marcellus and Utica shale drilling need more
A West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection study -
which the state Legislature requested and which included
McCawley's work - does not recommend any change to existing state
law, noting "no additional legislative rules establishing special
requirements need to be promulgated at this time." The report
concludes there are no indications of a public health emergency or
threat based on air quality monitoring data.
However, McCawley said this is only a small part of the picture
because the DEP study primarily dealt with whether the Legislature
should extend the current 625-foot setback requirement for wells
to be located away from occupied dwellings.
"Not everything happens at the center of the well pad, the way the
Legislature seems to believe," McCawley said. "Distance is less
important than monitoring."
In multiple legal advertisements during the past few years,
natural gas producers have confirmed the "potential to discharge"
various amounts of these materials into the air on an annual basis
from the operations at the natural gas wells and compressor
McCawley studied the air near seven wells throughout the state,
including five in Wetzel County, one in Brooke County and one in
Marion County. Each well was in a different stage of development
at the time he monitored them from July through October 2012.
- carbon dioxide
- nitrogen oxides
- carbon monoxide
- sulfur dioxide
- carbon dioxide equivalent
He said benzene was the primary constituent that he found at the
sites, though he does not believe all of this came from the well
"It appears the diesel activity at the well sites could be
contributing to the readings we are seeing at the sites," McCawley
For those who live in the rural areas near these well sites, such
as Wetzel County Action Group member Bill Hughes, the time for
more regulation is now.
"These things are totally unregulated, unmonitored and unaccounted
for," Hughes said of the air emissions from well pads. "The diesel
fumes are continuous and almost unbearable. My neighbors do not
live in the country to constantly breath in diesel fumes."
In terms of the immediate hazards for those living in the vicinity
of natural gas wells, McCawley said, "There is cause for concern."
However, he said the Legislature does not have to change any rules
to protect public health because he believes the DEP already has
all the authority it needs. The DEP study determines the agency
already has the "regulatory framework" to reduce air emissions
from drilling. McCawley would like to see this put into action.
"The DEP could require companies to monitor their own air
emissions as a way to control this," he said. "That way, they
could at least know when there is a problem."
McCawley also said he is working with the Wheeling-Ohio County
Health Department to conduct a long-term study regarding how
drilling is impacting Ohio County's air quality.
"You are not necessarily going to see benzene at well sites. But
we need to know what is being emitted, how it is being emitted,
and for how long it is being emitted," he said.
Hughes agrees, noting his neighbors do not want their children or
grandchildren to get sick from the fumes.
"We will make no progress in minimizing the long-term regional air
quality deterioration in our state until we formulate a process
that requires all natural gas exploration and production companies
to inventory and measure all emissions," he added.