Landowner: State Wrong to Protect Drillers

Morgantown Dominion Post
16 May 2011
By David Beard

FAIRMONT — Rick Humphreys has four vertical natural gas wells on his Plum Run, Marion County property.

He makes no money off the gas and doesn’t want the wells there. But he has no real choice. So when the gas company appeared to cross the line, he sued and won.

According to common law, the mineral estate is dominant over the surface estate when it comes to property rights, said members of the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization.

Humphreys seethes over that. “Quite frankly, I think it’s a significant injustice that occurs here in West Virginia,” he said.

A retired Army lieutenant colonel who served for nearly 30 years, he views the mineral state dominance as unconstitutional. “It’s a raw deal to sever minerals from surface rights,” he said, and not something the founders pictured when they established property rights.

He owns the mineral rights on his residential property, but not his wooded acreage with its rental home. “I’m not anti-coal. I’m not anti-oil and gas. But it’s wrong when someone can come onto your land when you don’t own the mineral rights.”

It’s also wrong, he said, for the state to exercise a twisted form of eminent domain. “The state doesn’t own my property. I own it. And for them to be the ones to give a private company the authority to come onto my property — that’s wrong.”

Rick and Rebecca Humphreys own two pieces of land in Plum Run — Plum Run Road is between Mannington and Farmington and runs roughly north-south. Their home sits on one property, the subject of the suit sits on the other.

According to documents in Marion County Circuit Court, that property, bought in 2001, is 97.5 acres. Waco Oil & Gas, based in Glenville, obtained a mineral rights lease and Department of Environmental Protection permits to drill four vertical wells there.

In 2006, Waco came onto the land, and over the course of several years, disturbed about 14.83 acres of the property: cutting down timber, building access roads (8.11 acres) and the well pads (6.72 acres).

In the process, Rick and Rebecca Humphreys charged in the suit, Waco took more land and timber than needed for the access roads, spilled oil, contaminated the tenant’s well with E. coli (the well also went dry and then regularly ran short of water), destroyed fences, blocked the Humphreys’ access to their own land, refused to maintain the site, and failed to adequately reclaim the land.

Court documents show that three DEP inspections viewed the site reclamation as adequate, with reclamation scores of 91, 95 and 84 out of 99 points.

The case went to jury trial in August 2010, before Marion County Circuit Judge David R. Janes.

The jury voted yes on contamination and deprivation of water and on damage to timber. Asked to rule if Waco’s surface use was reasonable and necessary, it said no.

It awarded the Humphreys $74,500 for water damage, $10,030 for lost timber, $10,000 for unreasonable surface use, and $2,500 for loss of use of the surface and inconvenience. In addition, Janes awarded prejudgment interest of $34,156.88, plus court costs.

Not counting the court costs, the total award was $131,186. The couple had to pay $40,000 from their retirement fund to conduct the case. Their original complaint estimated the repair costs for the land at $182,350.

Waco Vice President Doug Morris said the company has dealt with more than 100 landowners in Marion County, and this has been the only litigation to arise.

But “one’s too many,” he said and his company tries to work well with landowners. In this case, they had a disagreement, the jury made its determination, and “that’s what the court system is for.”

Humphreys emphasizes that his property rights concerns are not directed at Waco. They’re about a flawed system. He points out to his yard, where, as he said, he owns the mineral rights.

“If I wanted to go up here and drill a well in my back meadow, that’s my business. But to be a private-property owner and have someone else — a private company, for profit — be able to come on my property and take it under the protection of our government, is wrong. ... It’s an absolute embarrassment to our state.”