By C.V. Moore
Federal law requires oil and gas companies to get rid of waste fluid by pumping it deep underground. But concerned local citizens in Fayette County say, not in our backyard.
“I’d like the whole thing to go away,” says Brad Keenan, whose 140-acre property borders that of Danny Webb Construction, operator of two injection wells and a settling pit on Towne Hollow Road in Lochgelly.
Keenan has spoken out against the operation since 2004, when waves of noxious fumes rolling off the site mobilized locals and health officials to fight the last re-permitting in 2007.
After the well got its re-permit that year, Keenan says he basically gave up the battle. But the well is due again for a re-permit, and the current opportunity to voice his concern was too much to pass up, especially now that he has some key local, state and national allies speaking with him.
Keenan recently walked the property with an employee of Plateau Action Network, who gathered water samples from a small stream on his property that runs bright red due to high iron content. Keenan wonders what else is in the creek that may be a result of its close proximity to the well.
The stream is a tributary of Wolf Creek — Fayetteville’s emergency drinking water source — and the injection site sits at the headwaters of the main stem of the creek.
A powerful “big green” environmental group, Natural Resource Defense Council (NRDC), along with the West Virginia Surface Owners’ Rights Organization (WVSORO), recently provided a lengthy indictment of the well to the Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).
They wrote that a pattern of violations and noncompliance with state orders means the well should be shut down, and that the DEP should re-examine the effectiveness of its oversight of such wells in West Virginia.
The DEP has received approximately 50 objection letters to the re-permit, according to an agency official. They plan to have a public hearing on the matter at an as yet undetermined date.
Sylvia Allen, a retired educator, grew up in Summerlee and now lives in Oak Hill. She has been distressed for years over what she hears about both the well and a nearby coal refuse dump that is polluting Wolf Creek.
“Somebody needs to stand up and take a stand on it,” she said.
“Why don’t they take it somewhere else or deposit it where they got it, rather than deposit it here in poor West Virginia? That’s the thing that aggravates me. We always get dumped on and they take our resources and nobody speaks up, seems. I know others are concerned, but they’re afraid.”
Keenan has attempted to sell his property in the past, with no luck.
“Two years ago we tried to sell it to someone who had horses. They came and looked at it and said they wouldn’t put the horses on it because of this,” he said.
Much of the concern over the well centers on water issues, whether related to Wolf Creek or underground sources.
“The most important reason I’m against it is the danger of what it might do to our water,” said Allen. “That’s the most important thing to me for the future of our children and the future of the people who live here. We don’t know what damage it’s doing to our future water supply.”
There’s no doubt that the stream is polluted — it’s already listed as an impaired waterway — but the source of the pollution is less clear. Old coal mining operations nearby, including a coal refuse pile, cloud the situation with their own environmental threats from acid mine drainage.
As long as it comes from an oil and gas operation, any fluid — including that from drilling, fracking, and other industrial processes — can go down the well, along with biocide and corrosion inhibitor.
Sometimes, before it is pumped underground, the fluid is put into a holding pit for solids to settle out.
NRDC/WVSORO and Keenan claim there’s evidence that shows the pits may be seeping into the soil and creek. Webb denies this allegation and says the DEP has records of water samples above and below the pit, along with grab samples from the pit itself.
If the pit does leak, the water in the stream below would share some of the chemical properties of the water in the pit.
NRDC/WVSORO says water tests show “high levels of contaminants” like benzene, oil, chloride, and iron. They say the sampling has been done irregularly, imprecisely, and by the company itself, “casting doubt on the credibility of the samples and the methods used to collect them.”
Jamie Peterson, who oversees Class II injection wells for the DEP, is less concerned. He says water testing is done twice a year and, to date, elevated iron and manganese have been found in test results.
“(This) would be indicative of acid mine drainage and past mining activity in the area. We have not seen parameters such as chlorides and hydrocarbons substantially elevated, which would indicate pit leakage,” he says.
He believes there may be some seeps from old coal mining operations in the Summerlee area that are causing the creek to be polluted.
“If people just understood the past mining activity, maybe it would make them feel a lot better,” says Peterson. “The stream is still impaired, and that’s not good. But if the pits are leaking, we want to know it. We haven’t seen any evidence that they are.”
If the pit leaks, say the environmental groups, the operation poses a potential threat to drinking water and the creek itself.
They are attempting to do some water testing to better understand what’s going on. Keenan also wants to know whether or not the soil itself around the operation has been polluted.
Keenan also believes that Webb has illegally rerouted the stream, which Webb denies, though he says he did build a small dam on the creek to create a pond that area kids used for fishing.
Webb says he can’t relate to the people who are worried about his operation.
“I think they are good people. They are just misinformed and they don’t really understand what happens here,” says Webb.
“And if it doesn’t come here, it’s going to come somewhere — to your neighbor down the road. And then your own neighbors will be out of work.”
Stepping back from Webb’s operation and looking more broadly at the issue, NRDC and WVSORO tell the DEP that the standards relating to Class II disposal wells aren’t sufficient to protect groundwater.
Keenan has stronger words for the enforcement agency.
“The Office of Oil and Gas is almost criminal, I think, and they never do what they say they will,” he said.
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