By C.V. Moore
Its foes say a history of violations and noncompliance means it should be shut down, but both the operator and regulator of a Class II disposal well in Lochgelly defend the facility and their actions.
“Everything I do is legal,” says the well operator, Danny Webb. “I stay within the law and if something goes wrong, we correct it immediately.”
The underground injection control (UIC) well, which accepts fluids from oil and gas producers across the region, was originally permitted in 2002 and is currently in the renewal process.
Local citizens and environmental groups are taking the opportunity to express concern about how the well’s activities could be affecting health, water and the environment.
In a letter to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), which oversees UIC wells, the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) and the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization (WVSORO) say that the site’s history raises concerns about the operator’s ability to handle the waste.
They also call into question the DEP’s ability to properly oversee UIC wells and say more safeguards are needed.
Jamie Peterson, who oversees Class II injection wells for the DEP, says he disagrees with some of the statements in the letter.
“It is disappointing to read the NRDC statement that UIC oversight should be re-evaluated,” he says. “We have made increased progress relating to UIC permitting, testing and monitoring.”
Peterson says past violations at the site have been addressed and stream monitoring has been implemented to ensure that a settling pit on the site isn’t leaking into the headwaters of the main stem of Wolf Creek.
A look back at the history of the well in question (UIC Permit 2D0190460), which was originally permitted in 2002, shows that it received two violations since then.
Another nearby gas well was converted into a disposal well (UIC Permit 2D0190508) in November 2008 and received one violation in May 2008 for injecting without a permit. It also received a violation as a gas well in 2007 for inadequate sediment control on an access road.
But citizen concerns date back to at least 2004, when a foul odor wafted from the well on Towne Hollow Road into the surrounding neighborhood, which includes a medical facility.
Dr. Donald Newell, Fayette County’s health officer, works at Access Health, just down the road from the well. He opposed the 2007 re-permit because of the heavy tanker truck traffic, because his patients complained that they “could not breathe well” because of the odor, and because of the potential for the wastewater to end up in the water supply.
Many others expressed concern in letters to the DEP at the time, including adjacent landowners.
The DEP’s investigation into the smell concluded that a load of fluid from Bobcat Oil and Gas with high sulfur content had been improperly dumped into the open pit at the site, rather than contained in a tank.
In May 2004, they issued several “required actions” for Danny Webb Construction, including ceasing transport from Bobcat.
But it wasn’t until three years later, in March 2007, that Webb sent a letter to Bobcat stating that they had transported water twice that year and that due to the unpleasant odor, they would not be accepting any more, “even though the disposal was within all guidelines.”
Seven months later, the permit was renewed with three new requirements: security at the site; fluids handling training for workers; and discontinuance of the open pit.
Then two violations at the site on two separate wells occurred in May 2008.
First, the company was cited for injecting fluids into a well at the site that wasn’t permitted.
Webb defends this action, saying that the employee who was pumping was performing a test and thought the new permit was already issued.
“It was really just a misunderstanding. ... They had approved everything and he thought because it was approved that the permit had actually been issued,” said Webb.
But DEP records show that the application for the second UIC well wasn’t received until July 24, 2008, almost three months after the violation was written. The permit for the second well was eventually issued on Nov. 7, 2008.
In May 2008, the DEP also cited the company for failing to backfill and close the pit, as required in the recent re-permit.
But Webb says he asked the DEP to show him the law that would forbid him from using the pit, and that they couldn’t.
The DEP reversed their position on the pit that fall. In a consent order issued by the Office of Oil and Gas, the agency writes that “In light of the training and the enhanced security it is not necessary at present to require the closure of the pits, so long as they contain only fluids and do not cause objectionable odors off-site.”
The order also requires Webb to twice yearly test the stream below the pit for heavy metals, chlorides and other substances.
The latest violation occurred in September 2010, when the DEP observed oil in the pit.
“We had picked up water from a natural gas well which produces some oil,” explains Webb. “The driver got maybe 5 gallons of oil. And just as quick as they issued the violation we cleaned it up.
“It can still happen from time to time, but we keep it cleaned up. ... You can’t avoid getting a little bit of oil. It’s just impossible.”
He says if the driver have any oil in the fluid at all, they are supposed to skip the pit and put it into a tank, where the oil is separated out.
Webb collects enough oil to give away a truckload about every six months to another area business.
“They take it to Charleston and sell it to these tree huggers to put in their car,” he says.
That’s not the only byproduct that could end up benefiting Webb’s business. He says a company out of Pennsylvania wants to locate a facility in Fayette County that would extract the salt from Webb’s injected brine — about 3 to 4 pounds of salt per gallon — and sell it.
“One point five million barrels times 4 pounds of salt per gallon—that’s a lot of salt,” he says.
Webb insists that he runs his operation responsibly and within the law.
“In 30 years, I may have had three violations and they were abated immediately. We’ve never had a spill. We’ve never been cited for contamination. We sample our water just like the permit calls for. I have proven time and time again that the pit doesn’t leak,” he says.
“Legally, the only thing you can do with (the brine) is put it back where it come from, and that’s exactly what we do. And we put it back cleaner than when it comes out.”
Under federal law, this is how oil and gas waste is disposed of.
But even if Webb is following that law, critics say the system is broken or needs more oversight.
“There is strong evidence that DEP has turned a blind eye to a flagrant violator and DEP must use this case to reassess its oversight of the UIC program and all oil and gas waste management in the state of West Virginia,” write NRDC and WVSORO.
“Within the law” is not enough; more stringent rules are needed, they say.
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