Posted: February 26, 2015 at 2:26 pm
By Erin Irwin, Nick Villano, and Steven Laks
Fracking may soon resume in Morgantown’s industrial park, which straddles a hill just above the Monongahela River and lies a half mile away from where the city’s drinking water supply is gathered in and treated.
That geographic proximity has raised concerns among Morgantown city officials that toxic chemicals used during the proposed hydraulic fracturing operation may leach into the groundwater and find their way into the city’s main drinking supply. City officials have requested that the company behind the drilling, Northeast Natural Energy, add addition waste containment, reinforce the casings around the proposed drilling pads and monitor Morgantown’s drinking supply on a daily basis. Thus far, Northeast Natural has refused to agree to these safeguards.
“Morgantown is one of the very few test cases that I can think of in which there is fracking right next to a municipal water intake,” says Dr. Alan Ducatman, a professor of public health at West Virginia University. “So, it’s reasonable for people to be concerned because fracking is so close to the water supply.”
When Northeast Natural Energy first received permission to drill two wells in the industrial park and begin fracking in 2011, it agreed to build additional containment pools for the wastewater from those wells. The company also agreed to fortify the concrete encasement around the drills and monitor the city’s drinking water to make sure there was no contamination. But now that Northeast Natural Energy has applied to the state for two more drilling well permits, the company says such additional precautions are unnecessary.
This time around, the Morgantown Utility Board asked NNE to reinforce the concrete casings and use a less porous material than concrete. They also asked the company to conduct daily water monitoring, or at the least, reimburse MUB for the testing according to a report from Tim Ball<strong>,</strong> the MUB General Manager.
“We agree with MUB’s analysis that we need to protect our water,” says Nancy Ganz, a Morgantown city councilwoman.
During hydraulic fracturing (better known as fracking), millions of tons of water mixed with toxic chemicals are pumped down a well deep into the ground to break up the shale and release methane gas. When the fluid comes back up, it is mixed not only with these chemicals but also with naturally occurring brine from the soil.
“Both of these [fluids] include a lot of harmful materials,” says Evan Hansen, president of Downstream Strategies, a consulting firm that has a contract with MUB to implement a new water source protection plan and program.
Legally, Northeast Natural Energy doesn’t have to adhere to local safety precautions because state regulations supersede them.
“They don’t really have to do anything because the state guidelines do not call for them to be as stringent,” Ganz says. “But we’re having to put out a lot of extra money for [water] testing because we’re very concerned about monitoring what goes into our water.”
Companies in the oil and gas industry also do not have to disclose what fluids they use during the fracking process because of a federal law known as the Halliburton Amendment.
“The whole issue with fracking is what fluids are they using,” Ganz says.
Northeast Natural Energy says it is one of the safest fracking companies in the area. Zack Arnold, general manager of operations at NNE, says the company uses new technology to monitor the temperature and pressure of the wells. The company has programmed the well so that it has the potential to shut itself off if a certain condition were to occur. This ability as well as the power to shut the well off in seconds through a mobile app ensures safety and efficiency at drilling sites and well pads. Arnold says the va
- “Normally you would imagine that only one valve head is necessary to close off flow,” Arnold says. We have five valves just to allow us multiple options and extra insurance that we’re going to be able to shut the wells in case something were to happen.”
The company recently applied to the State Department of Environment Protection for permits to begin drilling two new wells on the well pad at the industrial park, but the permits have not been renewed yet.
Tim Carr, a professor of geology, says that once the permits have been approved, drilling will begin in July.
“In many ways, I think the industrial park is an ideal place for a location to drill a well,” says Mike John, president of Northeast Natural Energy.