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WV Frack Waste: Poorly Monitored, Much Stays Underground

PHOTO: A report to state lawmakers says West Virginia's Marcellus wells use huge amounts of fresh water and leave enormous quantities of fracking chemicals underground. Courtesy of the Sierra Club.
PHOTO: A report to state lawmakers says West Virginia's Marcellus wells use huge amounts of fresh water and leave enormous quantities of fracking chemicals underground. Courtesy of the Sierra Club.
October 23, 2013

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - West Virginia's Marcellus wells leave huge quantities of fracking fluid underground, and the industry's use of water and waste production is very poorly monitored, according to a new report to state lawmakers.

The Legislature heard from Morgantown consulting firm Downstream Strategies on the issue. Its president, Evan Hansen, said drillers take enormous quantities of fresh water, mix it with fracking compounds and inject it. Almost all of the drilling chemicals stay underground, he said.

"Marcellus wells are injecting about 5 million gallons per well of fracking fluid," he said. "Only about 8 percent returns to the surface."

The state Department of Environmental Protection should have been able to produce the report itself but lacks the personnel, Hansen said. The state has issued more than 2,000 Marcellus permits, and has 30 inspectors to monitor them.

West Virginia's natural-gas industry argues that since the Marcellus shale lies thousands of feet below aquifers, the drilling won't contaminate drinking water. However, critics say flaws at under-regulated gas wells could mean fracking fluids leak in hidden ways. They point to how little monitoring the state has done of water use and waste production. Hansen's research indicates reporting laws are largely unenforced.

"Operators are supposed to report to the DEP within a year," he said, "but what we found is that only about 35 percent had reported their water withdrawals and their waste generation."

The wells also produce huge amounts of underground brine, which contains salt and some natural toxins. Unlike other states, Hansen said, West Virginia doesn't require the drillers to report how much brine they produce or what they do with it.

"In Pennsylvania, all the waste has to be reported, and it must be reported every six months," he said. "That compares with West Virginia, where only one type of waste is reported, only once."

On the Oct. 30, the report and an open-to-the-public webinar will be available at switzernetwork.org/.

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV