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DEP: No new rules needed now for horizontal drilling air quality

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The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has concluded that no new rules are needed at this time regarding the quality of air near horizontal drilling wellpads.

The DEP's Office of Oil and Gas conveyed its horizontal drilling air quality study on June 28 to Senate President Jeffrey Kessler, D-Marshall, and Speaker of the House Tim Miley, D-Harrison. It is posted on the Legislature's website.

It was the last of three studies mandated in the December 2011 Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act.

The first, a study on the safety of pits and impoundments conducted by West Virginia University and filed with the Legislature on March 7, observed among 20 sites deficiencies in the construction of some pits and impoundments, and recommended that inspectors need better training and should visit sites more regularly.

The second, a study on noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds, went to the Legislature on May 28. This was aimed at helping the OOG and the Legislature determine whether restricting centers of wellpads to no closer than 625 feet from occupied dwellings is sufficient for health and nuisance concerns. The OOG concluded from data collected for that study under the supervision of WVU School of Public Health Professor Michael McCawley that "there are no indications of a public health emergency or threat," but recommended that the Legislature consider using not the center of a wellpad but, more protectively, the edge of wellpad disturbance as the reference point.

The third and last report, on air quality, incorporates aspects of the second study — measurements of dust and of volatile organic compounds in the vicinity of wellpads — and references other studies as well.

Surprisingly, the OOG's report does not mention the strongest air quality finding of the McCawley study: the presence of benzene at the 625-foot line at concentrations above what the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention call "the minimum risk level for no health effects." Benzene is a volatile organic compound that causes irritation of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract and, with longer exposure, blood disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders, and cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

McCawley's study further noted, "A health effects–based setback distance proposal might require a study with a lengthy (three years or more) sampling effort, greater detail in the chemical analysis, a larger number of sites and some effort to assure that the sites represent the range of exposures that a typical population could experience."

That observation from the air quality study the Legislature mandated is not mentioned in DEP's June 28 air quality report to the Legislature.

The McCawley study also suggested that some dust and volatile organic compounds may come not directly from wellpads, but from the associated truck activity. OOG indicated in its second report that West Virginia's Diesel-Powered Motor Vehicle Idling Act mandates no more than 15 minutes of engine idling per one-hour period, and that only law enforcement, not the DEP, can enforce that. The current report mentioned that act and various cooperative efforts among the state Division of Highways and local communities to moderate truck activity.

The June 28 report also referenced a cursory EPA air quality study conducted at a school located about a mile from a wellpad just outside Morgantown city limits that found no air quality problems.

And it referenced a number of other studies that currently are underway.

The OOG's overall conclusion is that it already recommended with the last study that the wellpad setback distance requirement be increased — a recommendation that also would help with any air quality problems at occupied dwellings — although it did not pick up on McCawley's suggestion that a health-based setback proposal would require more intensive data collection. Improved training of agency officials and the regulated community already has been put in place, the OOG said in its report. And numerous air quality studies are under way now by various state and federal entities; additional rules can await those results.

The OOG did not suggest or commit to any follow-up with the Legislature following the release of those results.