Wells Worry River Group

Letter asks DEP to place a hold on gas permits

Morgantown Dominion Post
6 May 2011
By David Beard

A Monongahela River watershed group wants the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) to study the potential health and safety risks of two Marcellus wells planned for the Morgantown Industrial Park — and preferably hold the permits until the risks can be assessed.

Barry Pallay and Duane Nichols, co-chairmen of the WV/PA Monongahela Area Watersheds Compact, drafted the letter to the DEP on Thursday afternoon and planned to send it that evening.

The wells will be drilled by Charleston-based Northeast Natural Energy on land owned by Enrout Properties LLC, which also owns the mineral rights, in the industrial park. The permits were issued in March; site work has begun.

The group raises three areas of concern:

“Leakage, seepage, spillage, or blow-out of liquid pollutants” that could threaten Morgantown Utility Board’s drinking water treatment plant downstream of the well pad.

Air emissions from the site, “including controlled and inadvertent releases, fugitive emissions, blow-outs, and accidental incidents.”

Fire and explosion hazards. The letter cites recent occurrences in northern West Virginia and southwestern Pennsylvania.

Pallay said they are concerned about the risks to the whole community, and particularly to the industrial park tenants and nearby Westwood Middle School.

The group asks the DEP for four things:

A full explanation of the permit review and evaluation process relative to the two wells and any others in the Monongahela River valley in Monongalia County.

A determination if the DEP can place a hold on the permits until a complete evaluation, with public input if possible, can be accomplished. With or without a hold, the group wants an engineering risk assessment to determine worst-case incidents, contingency responses established, and health and safety monitors installed.

A proposal to prevent permits “that represent direct threats to the public health and safety, in any part of the State of West Virginia.”

A meeting with DEP Secretary Randy Huffman “to discuss the extent of the threats that these proposed Marcellus wells represent” to the area.

Pallay said the DEP gas well permits don’t take public health and safety issues into account. He believes the DEP secretary has the power to respond and hold the permits when there is a compelling need, and this need is compelling.

Northeast President Michael John said, “The regulations in place in West Virginia ... are a comprehensive set of regulations.” Northeast’s permit is in compliance with DEP regulations, and those regulations provide adequate oversight, he said.

He also emphasized his previous statements about the company’s environmental responsibility. “We fully accept the responsibility of being a conscientious operator.”

DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said the DEP couldn’t respond to those points until it reviews the letter. But, to her knowledge, this is the first time in the history of the program that someone has submitted such a request after the permit was issued.

She said the DEP will look at the requests and see what actions the regulations allow.

A study will require money, she said, which the DEP may not have.

The DEP recognizes shortcomings in its regulations, she said. It looked at its permitting process during a recent comprehensive review and addressed permitting in the bill it submitted to the Legislature in January. The Legislature failed to pass a hybrid bill combining DEP measures with some of its own.

Given that failure, she said, the DEP has taken some steps to address various concerns, and companies have cooperated, although they could choose to fight those measures. A permit addendum on water use is an example. That reflects how much the companies appreciate the importance of those environmental issues, she said.

The DEP is aware people are concerned about what’s not in the regulations, and is trying to address those concerns, she said.

“We’re following the regulations that we have to follow; until we have more, we don’t have the authority behind us on a lot of things they want us to do.”

Link to text of letter