The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

Balancing Act

February 28, 2011

Monroe residents express opinions on Marcellus shale proposal

UNION — Residents of Monroe County are weighing in on recent proposals by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin and other lawmakers to utilize the Marcellus shale for economic development.

The Marcellus shale is a rock formation resting about a mile below the states of West Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York as well as portions of Ohio, Maryland and Virginia. Within the shale is believed to be trillions of cubic feet of trapped natural gas, which is freed through drilling into the shale and then pumping in high volumes of a mixture of water and chemicals to crack the rock and release the gas.

Monroe County is one of several counties in West Virginia currently being considered as a drilling site, and many residents, like R.D. Blakeslee, 79, of Union, think drilling would be a positive thing for the county.

“The history of West Virginia has been one of economic backwardness for sometime,” Blakeslee said. “People are happy, but economic deprivation has become a way of life. The people who don’t make any money from the community but already have their own money are the ones against this. They are the ones who came in here from other places and already had financial means. It’s just a small faction opposed to drilling.”

Blakeslee said Monroe County in particular needs the economic advancement drilling would provide.

“There’s no question it would bring a great deal of money into the county, and we need the income,” he said. “The County Commission can barely pay the fee to use the regional jail. Our county also needs the gas.”

According to Blakeslee, those who are concerned Karst may be affected by drilling don’t understand how Karst caves function.

“There’s been a great deal of discussion of damage to Karst in the area,” Blakeslee said. “Karst is nothing but an underwater ground cave system with water running in and out of it. The water works as a cleansing force as it flows in and out. It’s not that I want to see it polluted. I don’t, but the thing is hydrofracture drilling is actually safer than surface drilling. I think people are ill-advised to be against fracking because it minimizes damage to Karst.”

While many in the county against drilling have mentioned the contamination of water supplies, Blakeslee said wells in Monroe County are already contaminated through man-made means.

“The most contamination to ground water has come from deep ground drilling,” he said. “Hydrofracture is surface drilling. It is a matter of fact that 60 percent of Monroe County wells are already contaminated. Some is due to natural gas, but the majority is due to human actions, such as farmers using pesticides, animal waste and people dumping trash into sinkholes. The idea that this drilling will be a draconian type of pollution is unfounded. It’s just alarmism. The Department of Natural Resources is even working with residents to meet genuine concerns and ensure drilling goes on without any danger to residents.”

Unlike the coal industry, in which mineral rights were sold out from under landowners, Blakeslee said Monroe County residents have a lot of money to make from their mineral rights to the Marcellus shale.

“I read the governor’s presentation, and I researched his task force,” Blakeslee said. “There is one advantage they have for residences of Monroe County, and that is mineral rights have not been sold here. Whereas coal rights were sold to outside interests, rights to the shale will go to local people and local landowners. The extension service here is working with those who have not yet leased their land and helping them get better deals on royalties. People aren’t being exploited here like they have been elsewhere.”

Blakeslee said his own land in an area outside of Union known as The Knobs has already been leased to the Gordy Oil Company for drilling, though permits for drilling still haven’t been approved.

“We have 700 acres, and it is leased to Gordy Oil Company,” he said. “A land company buys up the lease and speculation and then sells it to Gordy for the drilling. Gordy is slated to drill this spring, though the permit hasn’t been issued yet. I’m confident, with the support of the governor, the majority of both branches of the Legislature, and even the DNR itself, the permit will go through. We’re certain the permit won’t be rejected.”

However, not all Monroe County residents are for drilling. Myles Yates, co-president of the Save the Water Table organization, said drilling is more of a danger to county residents than a boon.

Yates said he currently resides in Union but grew up in the area referred to locally as The Knobs, the same area where Blakeslee owns land. Yates and other Monroe County citizens voiced their concerns about drilling at a recent legislative event in Charleston on environmental concerns.

“I spoke with some local delegates, such as Sen. Ronald F. Ron Miller, D-Greenbrier, and Sen. Mark Wills, D-Mercer, about the issue,” Yates said. “Certainly, a proposal on the table from the Senate Judiciary Committee and the DEP proposal would be a fantastic thing. There are some things that would need to be addressed. The most important are ordinances that don’t exist to protect Karst.”

According to Yates, research done by Save the Water Table indicates hydrofracture drilling cannot be done safely on the Karst formations in Monroe County.

“The current process cannot be done safely, so we want not a temporary moratorium but a full ban on drilling in Karst,” Yates said. “Karst has vast interconnected water systems, which can easily be exposed to contamination after one minor failure. It’s simple to poison the water supply in one place, and it travels miles and miles. We have water diatribes that can travel up to 13 miles, but they are only protecting 2,000 to 5,000 feet from the site of the well.”

Yates said other major issues can arise, such as the heavy trucks used in drilling toppling over, hydrofracture wells exploding and more.

“The reality is, the way this is done will decimate the land and contaminate the water supply,” he said. “The general government opinion is for this. However, the drilling in other states and even in Wetzel County here in West Virginia have been harrowing cases of how this procedure can decimate an area. They plow ahead to get resources and money without putting in place regulations to protect the land and people.”

Even if drilling were approved, Yates said there are not enough DEP agents to regulate drilling.

“There are only 17 inspectors to serve the thousands of people in our area,” he said. “The DEP is severely understaffed and cannot support this operation. We don’t have any regulations and, even if we did, there aren’t enough inspectors to enforce them. The government is trying to increase staff, but the jury’s still out on that.”

Yates said residents who believe drilling will bring more money to the local area are mistaken.

“As far as bringing money to the local community, the relatively small group who support this believe it will create local jobs,” he said. “It won’t. It will bring in people from other places to fill these positions. And sure, this industry will come to the area, but they will leave eventually. Some people will make a small amount of money, but what will be left behind is a shell of what the county once was. Do we really support industry and boosting the economy at any cost? We have to protect what we have. We have to figure out a way to do this responsibility and protect the ultra-sensitive areas of our county. Risking these things for our economy is not worth the chance.”

According to Yates, the state government shouldn’t turn areas like Monroe County into “sacrifice zones” for economic gain.

“I don’t want the state not to make money, but we have to set parameters before we can make a sacrifice for this money,” he said. “Monroe County will make a sacrifice for that money. You hear officials talk about Monroe County in terms of a resource colony or a sacrifice zone, just like they did in Wetzel County. We are not anti-industry, but it must be done in a way that doesn’t destroy the community, damage the roads and diminish property values.”

More than 50 concerned citizens voiced concerns about drilling during an open forum at the state Legislature Thursday, citing hazards such as contaminated drinking water, erosion, and detriments to roadways. Industry groups also touted the opportunities for jobs and economic development at the forum.

A recent drilling industry-funded study found more than 2,800 state permits have been issued for Marcellus wells in West Virginia, and drilling is under way in 45 of West Virginia’s 55 counties.

The House of Judiciary Committee and the West Virginia State Senate continue to review proposals regarding drilling with possible action in the House this week.

— Kate Coil is a writer for the Bluefield Daily Telegraph

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