Posted: February 25, 2015 at 4:05 pm


By Joseph Lipovich, Jacqueline Sagar and Samantha Valentine

For over a decade, West Virginia officials have been touting the benefits of fracking for creating jobs and boosting the state’s economy. Executives in the natural gas industry also promote it as a cleaner, safer source of energy than coal.

Now, however, some residents in north central West Virginia are pushing back. They say that fracking can pollute local drinking water and that the industry doesn’t create many permanent jobs for in-state residents. They argue that the natural gas industry is downplaying the health risks, which include groundwater contamination and air pollution, as well as problems such as increased truck traffic and rising crime rates from transient workers.

In 2013, 24 residents of Salem, WV, filed a lawsuit against two companies, Antero Resources and Hall Drilling, alleging that the companies were responsible for contaminants in their drinking water, rendering it useless for drinking, bathing, and other purposes.

A year later, Charles Abrogast, who worked on a drilling site as a subcontractor for Antero,  filed suit against the company after he suffered severe injuries from a flash fire and explosion at a well site in July 2013.  The accident killed two men and injured three others. These lawsuits are just two of the many West Virginia lawsuits that have been filed recently against drilling companies in connection with worker injuries, groundwater contamination and other quality of life issues.

Hydraulic fracturing (otherwise known as fracking) uses millions of tons of pressurized water to break up the underlying shale and extract oil and gas from rock formations 6,000 feet deep. Up to 4.3 million gallons of water are used to frack a single well, according to the Yale Environment 360, a respected environmental news site published by Yale University.

The released gas is brought to the surface along with brine, waste chemicals and sediment. Some of this material is toxic to human beings. A recent Duke University study found that wastewater from fracking operations had been released into groundwater sources in parts of central and western Pennsylvania. Those operations have since been suspended until better containment methods are found.

Newly laid, uncovered pipeline runs through a farm near the campus of West Liberty University in Ohio County, WV. This line runs from a well site that sits on a nearby hilltop. Pipelines allow the oil and gas to travel over long distances, which can pose environmental risks. Samantha Valentine

Newly laid, uncovered pipeline runs through a family farm in Ohio County, WV. . Photo by Samantha Valentine

Despite such risks, West Virginia state officials have given the industry the green light to drill for gas underneath the Ohio River in the western part of the state. But activists fear that water from fracked gas pockets will “migrate” from fracked wells, rendering water from the Ohio and other sources non-potable.

“The amount of water used [in fracking] is scary,” said Robin Mahonen, activist and founder of Wheeling Water Warriors, an organization dedicated to unveiling the dark side of oil and gas and halt further development.

Fracking does pose a potential threat to aquifers below the earth’s surface, according to Michael McCawley, a WVU professor of public health and the Interim Chair of the WVU Department of Occupational Health and Environmental Health Sciences.

“The contamination is not necessarily coming directly from the hydraulic fracturing,” McCawley says “But you do have to drill through an aquifer in some cases, and there has been leakage into the aquifers through the drilling bore holes, which can affect well water.”

The number of work-related fatalities in West Virginia rose from 49 in 2012 to 60 in 2013, according to the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics. The number of “fire and explosion” deaths and “contact with objects and equipment” increased during this period in large part due to the growth of the natural gas industry in the state.

“The injured workers are called ‘Gas Vets’ and they have been maimed because of the industry,” Mahonen says.

In the meantime, the question of how many jobs are being created for West Virginians remains unresolved. Some fracking critics say most of the drilling jobs in West Virginia go to out of state workers. However, a study by Workforce West Virginia reported a 9.5 percent increase in statewide employment in oil and gas extraction industries. Most of the employment comes from the construction of refineries and pipelines as well as jobs in businesses such as restaurants and strip clubs patronized by industry workers, the study found.

Wetzel County, which had 12 percent of all gas producing wells in the state in 2012, has seen a rise in employment as well as an increase in traffic and road repair costs, according to the West Virginia Center on Policy and Budget. The state auditor’s office also shows increases in hotel occupancy in Wetzel, which has contributed to more revenue for the county from business and occupation taxes.

This well site sits on top of a family-owned farm on West Virginia Route 88 between the campuses of Bethany College and West Liberty University. Pipeline scraps lay outside of well site access gates on GC & P Road in Ohio County, WV. Scraps such as these can be seen all over the area near drilling sites. Samantha Valentine

This well site sits on top of a family-owned farm in Ohio County, West Virginia. Photo by Samantha Valentine

Local businesses, such as restaurants, retail and entertainment venues, have also seen rising profits from oil and gas workers, according to both the Bureau of Labor Statistics and the State Auditor’s Office.

The rental industry has seen an increase in profits in areas where “pipeliners” are prevalent. Rental prices in Wheeling, where fracking activity is heavy, rose five percent in 2013, considerably higher than both the state increase of .65 percent and the national increase of .89 percent.

Groups like the Ohio Valley Renter’s Advocates say landlords in the area have raised rental prices for gas and oil workers, displacing some local residents who can’t afford the higher rents.

“Anytime you have a higher demand some people are pushed out,” said Charlie Berd, executive director for the Independent Gas and Oil Association of West Virginia.