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Gas Industry's Spread Onto WV Public Lands Raises Concerns

PHOTO: Industry critics say they are very concerned about the impact building big natural-gas pipelines on national forest land might have on downstream drinking water. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
PHOTO: Industry critics say they are very concerned about the impact building big natural-gas pipelines on national forest land might have on downstream drinking water. Photo courtesy of Appalachian Mountain Advocates.
December 3, 2014

CHARLESTON, W.Va. - Growth of natural-gas drilling and new pipelines have observers concerned about their impact on public lands.

The state is looking at allowing more drilling leases and pipelines on West Virginia state property, and plans for three large pipelines cross national forest land on their way east.

Beth Little, administrator for the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy, said she thinks people don't always realize all that these public lands do. She said the forests in the region protect headwaters that ultimately become the drinking water for millions.

"Protection of water is one of the bases for which the Monongahela National Forest was created," she said. "All of these rivers supply water to a huge portion of the eastern seaboard."

The industry points to jobs and local tax revenue. According to Dominion Resources, a pipeline it wants to build would provide more than $25 million in local tax revenue annually.

Critics say the industry has a bad record for damaging water and air quality, and that state regulators don't do enough to stop it.

After years of complaints to the Department of Environmental Protection about drilling problems in the state-owned Lewis Wetzel Wildlife Management Area, locals finally went to the federal Environmental Protection Agency this fall. The EPA just cited the drillers there, according to Bill Hughes of Wetzel County.

"It does not bode well for the future," he said. "They did such a very poor job all through Lewis Wetzel, I would be very cautious about leasing more land that's owned by the public."

Current Dominion Resources pipeline operations also have been cited by state environmental officials for leaks and construction erosion and sediment. However, a member of one citizen group described the state's action as so mild that it "simply gives Dominion more time to do what it was already supposed to do."

If the national forest owns the mineral rights, it can say whether that land will be leased or not. But in many cases, those mineral rights are privately owned. And Little said the rules that govern drilling in the national forests were written before fracking - and haven't been updated.

"The guidelines that they have now are not sufficient to cover fracking," she said. "We're very concerned that there are not sufficient protections for how the drilling would be regulated."

Dan Heyman, Public News Service - WV