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Residents Say Marcellus Air Pollution a Problem

May 17, 2011

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Some residents of Wetzel County in northern West Virginia are asking the state to regulate the fumes coming off certain natural gas drilling sites into the Marcellus Shale formations deep underground. Bill Hughes with the Wetzel County Action Group says the West Virginia Division of Air Quality limits the hundreds of tons of volatile organic compounds that come off natural gas compressor stations, but not emissions from the wells that feed the stations.

He says the wells can release so much pollution that it can temporarily run people out of their houses, as it did one young boy and his mother.

"Her son woke her up and, 'Mommy, it smells in here. Something smells, mommy.' And she got up and realized, well, God, the whole house was just filled with fumes that were coming off the well the next hilltop over."

Natural gas wells don't usually have to get air permits because they're considered small, dispersed pollution sources. But Hughes says some rural counties out west have seen so much ozone from Marcellus wells that they have smog problems as bad as traffic-packed cities. He says the federal EPA has sometimes recommended treating groups of wells as a single source, although that approach has never been used by state officials here.

"Have they done it here in West Virginia? Never. The point of the appeal is to request that they consider aggregating all the connected wells with the compressor stations."

Hughes says if all drillers were required to use the best of existing standard technologies, it would be fair and the problems would be greatly reduced. And he says the companies could make up a good part of the cost by selling the fumes that don't leak away.

"The money is there to do it right, not release methane into the air, have vapor recovery units on all their condensate tanks, many many other things. But if they do that in the long run it's better for all of us."

The drilling industry has said it recognizes the need for predictable environmental regulation, but wants to avoid measures that would stifle growth.

A pair of hearings at the Department of Environmental Protection headquarters in Charleston on Thursday and Friday will take up the issue of two compressor station permits.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV