Gas Wastewater Disposal Violations Overwhelm DEP
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by Beth Little |
In WV most of the fluids from Marcellus shale gas drilling are disposed of by injecting them in underground injection (UIC) wells. The idea is that confining layers of rock keep the fluid from migrating upward and contaminating the water table. The injection pressure is supposed to be kept below the pressure it would take to fracture the rock around or above the fluid. UIC wells also have steel casings and cement layers to protect against waste entering the water
This protection is vital, because drilling wastewater contains heavy metals, toxic chemicals and radioactive materials.
In February 2010, Jamie Peterson, DEP staff in charge of the UIC program, told me there were 60–65 active UIC wells in the state. He was busy converting more wells to the UIC program.
ProPublica says there are “hidden risks” associated with pumping so much waste underground. Their analysis of 220,000 inspection records found that structural failure inside injection wells is “routine,” with one well-integrity violation written for every six wells between late 2007 and late 2010. That’s a total of 17,000 violations. They further report that 7,000 wells showed signs of leakage and that wells “are frequently operated in violation of safety regulations” and “under conditions that greatly increase the risk of fluid leakage and the threat of water contamination.”
If the situation at Danny Webb’s well in Lochgelly, WV, is any indication, the concern raised by ProPublica is certainly valid.
According to records obtained from the WV DEP under the Freedom of Information Act, Danny Webb Construction (DWC) was originally issued a permit to operate a gas wastewater disposal well in 2002. Also con-structed at the site were two open pits to be used only for settling out coal fines from wastewater produced by coal bed methane operations.
In 2004, the DEP received multiple com-plaints of a foul sulfurous odor coming from the site, which raised concerns that the odor was due to hydrogen sulfide, a poisonous and flammable gas. At low concentrations, exposure to hydrogen sulfide gas can cause irritation of the eyes and throat, shortness of breath, and nausea, while at higher concen-trations exposure may be fatal. The DEP investigation found that the problem had been caused by a truck driver, who had mis-takenly discharged fluids into one of the pits instead of a tank.
Based on ongoing odor complaints, DEP required Danny Webb Construction to: (1) cease transporting fluids from the company (Bobcat Oil and Gas) that had produced the waste giving rise to the problems, (2) cease using the open pit at the site until further notice, (3) empty the pit, wash the liner, and dispose of all rinsate and residue in a tank or down the disposal well, (4) complete construction of a fence around the pit at the disposal well site, (5) conduct training and instruction to all truck drivers and operators at the site to ensure proper assessment and handling of fluids.
A ccording to the records, only #(4) was timely completed. DWC con-tinued to accept waste from Bobcat Oil and Gas for three more years, finally conducted
worker training after four years, and continued using the pits.
In 2007, when DWC applied for a per-mit renewal, DEP received numerous comments from local residents expressing opposition to the renewal of the permit, including from the Fayette County Health Officer. While many concerns were raised by the residents, a significant number men-tioned ongoing problems with noxious odors. In addition, the DEP received a com-munication from an Underground Storage Tank Inspector noting that Mr. Webb had pro-vided the inspector with conflicting stories about the activities at the site. The UTS in-spector found that Danny Webb was not managing his storage tanks properly, and he stated that Danny Webb “is not to be trusted. He is a loose cannon, doing as he jolly well pleases, right or wrong, regulations be damned.”
Despite these problems and concerns, DEP issued a renewed per-mit on October 25, 2007. Among other requirements, the permit mandated that the permittee: (1) provide for security at the in-jection facility, including providing a locked gate and instructing all drivers to close and lock it if a Webb employee is not at the facility (2) conduct training and instruction to all truck drivers and operators at the site to en-sure proper assessment and handling of fluids, and (3) have pit fluids pumped into the tank battery and have the pits permanently backfilled and their use discontinued. Neighbors report that the gate is almost never even closed, and the pits are still there today. There are signs that the pits are leak-ing from the sides of the berms around the pits.
On May 8, 2008, DWC was cited for underground injection into another well at the same site without a permit. On May 12, 2008, DWC was cited for failure to pump the fluid in the pits into tanks and close the pits within six months of permit issuance. On June 3, 2008, DEP personnel conducted another inspection and found that the other well onsite was still being operated. On September 23, 2010, DEP issued another notice of violation to DWC, this time because used oil not associated with produced fluids was observed within the pits. DWC was ordered to replace the pit liners. (In case you have noticed a disconnect regarding the attitude of the DEP toward the pits, Webb contested the legality of the DEP ordering the elimination of the pits, and the DEP conceded).
The EPA requires surprise inspections, at least once annually, with the taking of a sample for laboratory analysis. There is no evidence on the Office of Oil & Gas UIC data-base or in the FOIA documents that this has happened at the Webb site.
The permit for the Lochgelly well expired this past October, but waste is still actively being injected, while Webb has applied for a permit renewal. After hearing from neighbors and reading the FOIA information, the WV Sierra Club, WV Highlands Conservancy, Plateau Action Network, and National Re-sources Defense Council, as well as numerous citizens, have all written comment letters to the DEP protesting the granting of a permit renewal and requesting a public hearing.
The strong evidence that the DEP has turned a blind eye to a flagrant violator calls into question the ability of the DEP to properly manage the disposal of drilling waste in UIC wells in WV. Perhaps, as in the case with the 13,000 abandoned wells in WV, the DEP is understaffed and over-whelmed.
According to the EPA, there are now 759 Class II wells to dispose of brine and other related oil and gas fluids in WV. There is no map showing the locations of these UIC wells in WV.