By Taylor Kuykendall
The predicted natural gas boom has a lot of West Virginians wondering if the state’s environment can handle the load of another growing energy market.
While natural gas is already a large industry in West Virginia, it is about to get a lot bigger. Drilling practices are evolving, and their scale is increasing.
Many West Virginians are concerned that the costs of allowing drillers in the state may be higher than the benefits. Carol Warren, a tenth-generation West Virginian, said her family has been in West Virginia since 1750.
Because West Virginia has largely been the victim and not benefactor of industry, Warren said, she may be the last of her family to call West Virginia home.
“My daughter will never live here, because she wants her daughter to grow up in a place with options, that’s healthy,” Warrent said. “That makes me really sad. It makes me want to cry.”
Warren, who works with the Ohio Valley Environmental Coalition, said she sees people looking at the rosy side of industry without thinking about the possible side effects of the economic boost. She said she has been hearing the stories from people in other states that have already experienced a boom in natural gas. The stories, she said, aren’t good.
“I feel like people, for one thing, tend not to be real well informed until something really bad happens to them,” Warren said. “That’s what we are starting to see in some parts of the state already. Bad things are happening to them.”
The importance of job and economic growth is not lost on Warren, but she said she is skeptical of what is sometimes called economic development.
“I don’t call it economic development if it ruins our water or air,” Warren said. “We have to live here. They say these processes can be done cleanly. Well, then let’s do them cleanly. I don’t think any of us out there are saying, ‘We’ve got to ban gas drilling.’ I don’t think anybody is talking about that.”
Warren points out counties such as McDowell or Mingo, where coal has long been mined. The legacy effects of coal pollution, Warren said, have left those areas where coal once flourished among the poorest and sickest areas in the state.
“How many West Virginians’ dreams and homeplaces are we willing to sacrifice on the altar of money, for the industries? A lot of these big companies are going to be taking the money outside of the state to where they live,” Warren said. “Then what are we going to be left with where we live?”
Dr. Tom Jones, a Marshall University professor and
environmental scientist, also finds West Virginia is often too willing to sacrifice its land in exchange for employment.
“We’re quick to say don’t take our jobs,” Jones said. “Let us keep our jobs, and we’ll let creeks go, we’ll let our streams go, as long as you don’t take our jobs.”
John Chistensen, an advocate for the West Virginia Environmental Coalition, said the stakes are too high to “allow this industry to go unchecked.”
“It’s a classic example of bait and switch, where we sacrifice beautiful, rural farmland for huge industrial sites, complete with chemicals, huge water withdrawals and the inevitable disposal of frack water as it comes back to the surface,” Christensen said.
The effects aren’t limited to scenery and rural countrysides, some have warned. Sara Wood, a Wetzel County resident and registered nurse, lives on property surrounded by natural gas wells and a compression station. She recounted waking up to chemicals in her home one morning that she believes came from one of that gas operations.
“I have a little boy who is 3-years-old who woke me up one morning and said ‘Mom it stinks,’” Wood said. “I woke up and noticed the inside of the house was filled with fumes. I ran outside, grabbed him and I get hit with a wall of fumes. I looked over at a well site and saw a cloud coming over our house.”
Randy Huffman, secretary of the Department of Environmental Protection, said there has not yet been any large-scale environmental damage as a result of natural gas drilling. A few spills, illegal dumping or sediment washing into creeks has been the extent of the damage so far.
“They’re not environmental catastrophes,” Huffman said. “No single incident that I’m aware of created what you would call an environmental catastrophe.”
But, Huffman said, he doesn’t believe lawmakers should be waiting for that catastrophe before taking action.
“One of the arguments I hear against increasing the regulatory structure here is that nothing has gone wrong,” Huffman said. “I think that is not a good approach. We shouldn’t wait for something to go wrong.”
Beth Little, an administrative assistant with the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy and volunteer for the Sierra Club, said air quality contamination is one of many potential effects of the gas industry.
“It turns out in Wetzel County, where a lot of the drilling is going on, they have really bad air quality problems,” Little said.
Little said she was concerned that the industry is not being encouraged by current policies to care for the environment.
“If you speed, you can get a pretty hefty ticket, and it makes you slow down,” Little said. “Industry doesn’t have much of an incentive, the way things are now, to do things right.”
Shanda Minney, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition, said her organization is concerned about large water withdrawals for fracking operations, disclosure of chemicals in fracking water and the implementations of adequate industry regulation.
“There have been some reports of water withdrawals from smaller streams having an effect on flow downstream, and that is really the crux of the issue,” Minney said. “With the large quantities of water that are required, if those are taken from a smaller, or intermittent stream, they can really have dramatic effects on the downstream side of it.”
Paul Ziemkiewicz, director of the West Virginia Water Institute, said a single well could easily dry out a small stream.
“If you’re a fish, you could be very unhappy,” he said.
“If that water comes from the big rivers during the wet part of the year, it’s probably not a big deal. If it comes from headwater streams during a dry year, that would seriously dry up a stream.”
Ziemkiewicz added that low-flowing streams promote the growth of algae and could otherwise disrupt the environment.
Another issue is oil and gas drilling over areas with a karst topography. Karst landscapes sit atop a bedrock of soluble material. Because of this, the ground below is often filled with small to large caves as a result of dissolution of the bedrock.
Chris Chanlett, president of Friends of the Lower Greenbrier River, said the karst areas in West Virginia may be especially threatened by gas drilling.
“We feel this creates a special vulnerability to aquifer pollution,” Chanlett said. “Water is moving around; it’s like Swiss cheese under the surface. Water moves around sometimes 30 or 40 miles laterally. We don’t want to see the Greenbrier River or any of our aquifers become polluted.”
Chanlett added that his organization is not prohibitive of the industry but does demand more regulation. He said his concern was that the attractiveness of the Greenbrier area as a place to work, play, visit and live could be compromised.
“There can be very extensive unseen consequences for our larger ecological system, upon which we are all ultimately dependent,” he said. “Of course, that can affect recreation, economic well-being of the area. One big incident in an area can have very significant consequences for the attractiveness of the area.”
Minney said some of the issues concerning natural gas drilling are in their infancy, and the knowledge to avoid potentially damaging effects just isn’t there yet.
“It is an issue that is understudied and not understood well enough for us to be able to adequately protect against it,” Minney said. “We really need to ensure that we are taking all precautions possible.”
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