Posted: December 5, 2012 at 7:49 pm

By Sean McNamara, Erika Blatt, Ilyssa Miroshnik


Morgantown,WV — When some residents of Morgantown learned that a gas company was drilling for natural gas in a local industrial park last year, they panicked. Would water contaminated with toxic chemicals used in the drilling process leach into natural groundwater sources like the Mon River or local wells? The Morgantown city council quickly passed a ban on drilling within city limits, but a few months ago, that ban was overturned by a local judge.  Companies are now allowed to drill in the city’s industrial parks, although no further drilling has occurred so far this year.

The legal battle that swept Morgantown may be repeated over and over again in towns across the region, as companies rush to exploit the natural gas reserves trapped in the Marcellus shale formation, which extends from Kentucky through West Virginia and Pennsylvania and on up to New York. Although advocates for the industry say the drilling process, known as hydraulic fracturing or fracking, is safe and will not contaminate groundwater sources when done correctly, public health researchers and environmental biologists say that previous fracking efforts have contaminated nearby water sources and killed aquatic life.  Some also say that fracking causes air pollution and increases the risk of earthquakes near drilling sites.

“Fracking can have lots of health concerns,” says Dr. Alan Ducatman, interim founding Dean of the School of Public Health and a professor of occupational and environmental health sciences at West Virginia University. “There can be water pollution from several different kinds of deep underground and surface sources if the returned water isn’t disposed of correctly or if there’s a leak and that can be from several different sources.”

Drilling for Marcellus shale goes down at least 5,000 feet then jets out horizontally to frack the rock by section

The fracking process involves pushing millions of gallons of water, chemicals and sand underground at a high rate of intensity. This pressure causes fractures or explosions in the rock, releasing gas and the gas, or methane, is then suctioned up the pipes and collected, along with the contaminated water. In the past, many companies simply dumped the contaminated water into wells or abandoned mine shafts where it leached into the groundwater.

Fracking advocates say the gas industry has learned from its past mistakes and is now disposing of the contaminated water properly. In addition, they say that since the the drills go so deep into the ground and are encased in thick pipes, there is no danger of contaminated water leaching into groundwater.

These casings await inspection before being trucked to the drill site, where they will be cemented into the ground thousands of feet below the surface.

“That water is buried as much as 10,000 feet below the ground,” says Paul Ziemkiewicz, Director of the West Virginia Water Research Institute, which gets significant funding from the energy industry.  “There is no way it could seep up through the earth into the water table.

However, Ducatman says there is no guarantee all the contaminated water used in the fracking process will make its way back up the pipes and not leach into groundwater. When the federal Environmental Protection Agency conducted research drilled two monitoring wells in Pavillion, Wyoming, to monitor contamination to nearby sources of drinking water from fracking there, the study showed increased chemical levels in the water supply.

Rhett Reidpath, who grew in Morgantown and graduated from WVU Law School says he won’t drink the tap water when he visits his family in Morgantown.

“I don’t want to take any chances with my health over an industry that might accidentally contaminate the water,”  Reidpath says.

In addition to the risk of water pollution, Ducatman says there are other negative environmental effects from fracking. Rural roads are clogged with trucks going to and from the drilling sites, and residents who live near fracking sites have also complained about light and noise pollution from the drilling. There is also some evidence that silica dust particles from the sand used in fracking causes harmful air pollution.

Concerns over water and air pollution are what led the Morgantown city council to ban fracking within a mile of the city’s limits. The Northeast Natural Energy Company, which was drilling in an industrial park on Greenbag Road, sued the city, and Monongalia Circuit Court Judge Susan Tucker overturned the ban this past summer. Tucker argued that the city did not the legal authority to ban fracking and that only the West Virginia Department of Environmental Regulation could regulate it.

[The lawsuit] was a  test to finish what we had to do in the city of Morgantown,” says Mike John, the CEO of Northeast Natural Energy Company, which is headquartered in Charleston.

In response, the city passed a local zoning ordinance restricting fracking to industrial parks within Morgantown and stipulating that no drilling could take place within 625 feet of a building. John says he has no plans at this point to sue the city again and at present there is no drilling going in within city limits.

In the meantime, Ducatman says he hopes that more research will lead to a better understanding of fracking’s impact on the environment and how to ameliorate some of its negative effects.

“I think this country is smart enough and certainly wealthy enough that there is enough wherewithal to figure out how to do [fracking] well,” Ducatman says.