Marcellus Shale Protest Brings 100 to Courthouse

Residents speak up

Morgantown Dominion Post
19 May 2011
By Jim Bissett

Rallygoers and others who want to continue the protest can attend a meeting at 7 p.m. Friday, in the Morgantown High School cafeteria.

John Barnes tapped right to the source of the angst Wednesday morning as he stood on Courthouse Square to protest the planned drilling of two Marcellus shale wells in the Morgantown Industrial Park.

“I’m telling you, if we don’t step up, it’s going to be like a moonscape around here,” said Barnes, who was among the crowd of 100 who turned out to discuss ways to persuade (or force) the gas industry to slow up on the extraction process that he says ruins streams and makes farmland barren.

Barnes was talking about work that started a week and a half ago in the city’s industrial park near Westover to extract natural gas from the Marcellus shale, a 450,000-year-old geographic formation running thousands of feet under Appalachia and the Allegheny Mountains, including most of West Virginia and Pennsylvania.

Northeast Natural Energy, of Charleston, is planning the work.

Energy experts say the shale’s wellspring of natural gas can meet the United States’ energy needs for the next 10-15 years.

But it doesn’t yield its treasures easily.

The formation lies at least 8,000 feet beneath West Virginia’s mainly rugged, and mostly rural, terrain.

Drilling in the shale means using about 6 million gallons per well of chemically treated water to fracture, or “frack,” the buried rock to release the gas.

The water must first be drawn from area streams. Then, in its incarnation of “frack water,” it must be pumped back out. In the industrial park, water is a triple issue, since the wells will be drawn around 1,500 feet from a drinking water intake for the Morgantown Utility Board.

That’s too close, Barnes and others on Courthouse Square said.

There’s always the danger of the well blowing out, they said. Or the chance of chemically treated water leaking into the ecosystem from normal wear on pipes as water is funneled in — then back out again — after the extraction.

The rush to tap into the shale’s reserves, he said, is creating a frenzied, boomtown economy ripe for accidents that can lead to injuries and environmental disasters.

Several protestors carried signs with water themes to that effort: “I bathe and I vote,” read one. “Don’t frack with our water,” was written across another.

Brett Loflin, a vice president of regulatory affairs Northeast Natural Energy, said Wednesday afternoon from Charleston that residents need not worry about the Morgantown project wrecking the ecosystem or compromising the water supply.

Loflin said his company employs environmental practices that “go beyond” current regulatory standards, such as steel tanks for frack water storage — “We won’t discharge any fluids into earthen pits,” he said — and the use of synthetic liners to catch any water in the event there is a spill.

“We’re a West Virginia company,” he said. “We live here, we work here. We hunt and fish here. We’re not going to do anything to hurt the environment here.”

Barnes isn’t so sure.

“This is just the beginning,” said Barnes, who lives in Morgantown and grew up in Fayette County, Pa. “Pennsylvania has been run over roughshod.”

WVU professor Jim Kotcon, an environmental activist and West Virginia Sierra Club member, said everyone on Courthouse Square needed to write a letter — preferably, right then and there, he said — to acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin.

“He can’t read your mind,” Kotcon said.

“Unless you tell him, he doesn’t know it. But I can guarantee you, he knows what the gas companies are doing.”