Effect of Marcellus Drilling on West Virginia Fisheries Could be Profound

Charleston Gazette
19 February 2011
By John McCoy

Fisheries scientists and conservation groups worry that gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale might affect fishing, particularly in small streams and more particularly in the Tygart and Little Kanawha river watersheds, the current hotbeds of Marcellus activity.

As West Virginia's lawmakers work on a bill that would regulate natural-gas drilling in the state's Marcellus Shale deposits, one point has become abundantly clear:

The process revolves around water - water that would be pumped from creeks and rivers; water that, once used, would be polluted with chemicals and toxic metals; water that, if later allowed to escape, could contaminate the very streams and rivers it was drawn from.

"I don't think the average West Virginian understands the sheer amount of water required for these wells," said Frank Jernejcic, a district fisheries biologist for the state Division of natural Resources. "It takes 1 million to 5 million gallons per well. Most tanker trucks hold about 4,500 gallons. If a well needs a million gallons, the driller would need 220 trucks to transport the water to the well site. If the well needs 5 million gallons, it's going to take around 1,000 truckloads to do the job."

The water is used for a process called hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking." Drillers add chemicals to the water and pump it into the well under intense pressure, where it fractures deep-lying rock strata and frees up additional volumes of gas.Companies are already drilling in the Marcellus formation, and much of the water they're using is pumped from streams located near wellheads. Many of those streams are quite small.

Jernejcic and his colleagues believe too much pumping, or pumping during dry spells, could dewater some streams to a point where fish and other aquatic life would die.

"We currently have no law regulating water withdrawal from streams, and we need one," Jernejcic said. "The [Division of Environmental Protection] has an 'interactive water withdrawal tool' on its website that recommends to drillers when a stream is too low to pump from, but it's really only a suggestion and it has no teeth."

Janet Clayton, a DNR biologist who specializes in mussel research, said several beds of mussels were left high and dry last summer on streams where Marcellus pumping was taking place.

"We don't know definitively if pumping led to those mussel beds being stranded, but companies were removing water from those streams during a drought," Clayton said. "You can't dewater a stream and expect aquatic life to live."

One endangered mussel species - the clubshell mussel - is known to exist in the Little Kanawha River and Middle Island Creek watersheds, both Marcellus-drilling hotspots. A second species common to those streams, the snuffbox mussel, is currently under consideration for endangered status.

"Theoretically, a company withdrew enough water from those streams to kill a snuffbox or a clubshell, the company would be in violation of the federal Endangered Species Act," Clayton said.

Biologists also worry about the amount of sediment being stirred up by Marcellus-related activity by road building, stream crossings and well-site development.


"Some of the stuff that's going on is pretty bad," Jernejcic said. "The big, bad example is in the Fish Creek drainage of Wetzel County. One of the companies built a road right up the streambed of a little stream named Blake Run. They bulldozed a waterfall and filled it in. It's a road now. The [federal] EPA is investigating that one."

Large rivers such as the Ohio and Monongahela would appear to be environmentally friendlier water-withdrawal sites, but Jernejcic said those watersheds have a couple of strikes against them.

"First there are the transportation costs," he explained. "It takes a lot less fuel to move 200 trucks a few miles from a little headwater stream than it would take to move them 25 or 30 miles from a major river.

"And then there concerns about the potential loss of water that could be used to supplement river flows for navigation. The [U.S. Army] Corps of Engineers has already expressed misgivings about having water taken from Tygart and Stonewall Jackson lakes."

Yet another fisheries-related concern is the potential for water pollution caused by escaped frack water. Twenty to 50 percent of the water used to frack a well returns to the surface. Companies can truck that water to storage or treatment facilities, pump it to small reservoirs built for that purpose, or re-inject it into the earth deep below existing water tables.

The legislation under consideration largely deals with issues related to truck transportation. Larry Orr, acting environmental vice-president for the Kanawha Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, would rather see it focus on the amount of water being withdrawn and with preventing frack water from poisoning streams.

"From a fisherman's point of view, water quantity and quality have to be the main concerns," said Orr, a retired chemical engineer. "My concern is how they handle all that [frack water] brine. My concern is that they want to start injecting it underground without treatment. They say it isn't ever going to [resurface]. I have a problem believing that."

Even as the legislative wrangling takes place, companies are building the infrastructure needed to support Marcellus drilling on an even larger scale.

"Some of the companies are building big pits where they can store millions of gallons of water," Jernejcic said. "They're building pipelines so they can pump the water up from the rivers. In Wetzel County, there must be dozens of those pits. They're up to 5 acres in size, and 30 to 40 feet deep.

"And the companies are continuing to apply for drilling permits. Those permits are good for two years, so you have accountants in corporate offices deciding where to drill based on where they can get X million gallons of water. I visited one well site perched way up on the side of a steep slope. I asked the boss why they chose that spot, and he told me someone in Oklahoma City had sent him the [GPS] coordinates.

"The bottom line is that people outside West Virginia are making decisions about what is going to be done here, and we don't have a coherent regulatory apparatus in place. We need one. We need a bottom line so if someone messes up, [state officials] can give them a proper kick in the ass."

Reach John McCoy at johnmc...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1231.