Drilling Halted on Morgantown Marcellus Operations

DEP Directs Northeast Natural Energy to not begin drilling as planned May 18.

The State Journal
18 May 2011
By Pam Kasey

The state Department of Environmental Protection has directed Northeast Natural Energy not to begin drilling on May 18 as originally planned, The State Journal learned.

DEP directed Northeast Natural Energy to to postpone drilling until negotiations between the company and the Morgantown Utility Board conclude.

MUB received written agreement from the company later on May 18 to its requests. MUB then sent a written request to the DEP seeking permit modifications to incorporate the agreements.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman indicated to MUB that the permits would be modified. He said the modified permits and subsequent approval to drill would likely be granted on May 19.



While the Morgantown Utility Board reported satisfaction May 17 with safeguards agreed to by the operator of Marcellus shale gas wells just above the city’s drinking water intake, some residents expressed dissatisfaction.

The opinions were aired at a Morgantown City Council meeting on the eve of Northeast Natural Energy’s May 18 start date for drilling.

“It is our opinion that, if the safeguards we have agreed to are implemented, and right now every indication is that that’s happening … there is an adequate level of precaution provided to ensure protection of the public water supply,” said MUB General Manager Tim Ball.

“I’ve never in my life been in such a situation where you would think that the mayor would call the governor and go into his office and say ‘This is unacceptable,’” said resident Duane Nichols, one of about 20 residents who spoke against the drilling.

Northeast’s wells, two of six planned, received permits from the state Department of Environmental Protection in March, but city residents did not become aware of them until early May.

The Safeguards

Ball reported at the meeting that MUB had received verbal assurance and awaited written confirmation from Northeast that it would meet MUB’s requests.

These included, in a May 12 letter to the DEP, redundant spill prevention and spill containment measures, integrity testing of well casings and documented removal of all wastes from the site.

Conversations with the operator had modified the list slightly, Ball said, but those were the main measures.

Residents Not Satisfied

Residents, who filled council chambers and flowed over into a lobby served by broadcast coverage, vented their frustrations for more than an hour.

Common complaints focused on the destruction of riverside landscape and of light and noise coming from and expected to continue at the drilling site.

Many commended Ball for MUB’s efforts to protect the water supply, yet expressed concerns that MUB’s response was rushed and that the city should do more.

Environmental consultant Marc Glass, a licensed remediation specialist who works with soil and groundwater contamination, referenced a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency “draft plan to study the potential impacts of hydraulic fracturing on drinking water resources,” expected to be released in 2012.

Glass said the U.S. Department of Energy is only just now preparing guidance “to improve the safety and environmental performance of hydraulic fracturing.”

Neither the federal government nor the state or the city are yet prepared to manage the risks associated with hydraulic fracturing, he said.

“I really hope the city invokes the greatest extent of its power to at least buy us more time until rational decisions can be made,” he said, suggesting an injunction. “Guidance is forthcoming — we should not be doing this now.”

Others pointed to the city of Wellsburg, which on May 10 banned drilling and fracking.

“I think that by West Virginia Code 8-12-19 you have the authority to stop these wells, and I urge you to do so,” said resident Michael Levy, echoing thoughts expressed by many.

That section of state code extends municipal authority for up to one mile beyond city limits when necessary to carry out city functions. That would encompass Northeast’s wells.

How Could This Happen?

The question on the lips of many residents has been something like, “How could DEP permit Marcellus shale gas wells just above the drinking water intake for 90,000 people without MUB knowing — without anyone knowing?”

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said the agency had reason to believe MUB was aware of the permit applications because the company expressed the intention of getting water for hydraulic fracturing from MUB.

Ball said the company did make an initial contact about water in mid-January. When the utility heard nothing further, it began watching the classified ads in the belief that gas well drilling permits undergo a process of public notice and comment like most other permits.

In fact, he and all of Morgantown have learned, they don’t.

“We are very accustomed to public comment opportunities being provided and public input being solicited when water and wastewater systems are concerned,” Ball told The State Journal on May 10. “It’s a natural part of our world and it is quite surprising to us that those opportunities do not exist in the permitting of oil and gas wells.”

Morgantown Mayor William Byrne said the lack of public notification put the city “behind the eight ball.” Huffman acknowledged that public notice is required for all other permits DEP issues and that it would be a good idea for oil and gas wells too, but said he doesn’t know if he has the authority.

“Your authority goes as far as nobody challenges it,” he said.

“But the Legislature has made a requirement that there be public notification of mining permits and water permits, but not on oil and gas permits,” he continued. “Just because I might think today that it’s the right thing to do, it’s not the public policy of the state to do that, so I think it’s better addressed by the Legislature.”

Next Steps

Regarding the permits, Huffman said DEP would consider whether any agreement between MUB and Northeast called for permit modifications.

Some conditions would not need to be in the permits, he said. An example would be if the company agreed to collect upstream and downstream water quality data.

Some conditions, however, would need to be in the permits — for example, a second berm, or any other site alteration.

“They could do something physical to the site that would be worse instead of better, and we wouldn’t have a way to address it (if it weren’t in the permit),” he said. “If they were out there making some significant physical alternations in the site that aren’t in the permit, we’d probably make them stop.”

Regarding city actions, council committed to contacting DEP in support of MUB’s request, and Byrne said he would call acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

“We were struck as a council by the number of people that came out expressing concern about this,” Byrne said.

He said the city did not believe it could meet the “irreparable harm” standard for an injunction and did believe Ball’s efforts were significant enough at this time.

And he said he asked the city attorney to look into whether Wellsburg’s approach to prohibiting drilling would be an effective tool for Morgantown.