‘Almost heaven’ or fracking hell?
RELATED: Split estates bury profit for many
WETZEL COUNTY, W.Va.—John Denver sang about country roads taking him home, but there’s another element on the scene these days that doesn’t fit his description of “almost heaven.” Trucks of all shapes and sizes, and by the thousands, rumble over these back roads as they wind up and down mountains and perilously close to stream beds. Dump trucks, gas tankers and tractor–trailers have pulverized the pavement, causing potholes that look like craters.
They’ve also spilled the occasional load, blocked roads and caused traffic jams. In Wetzel County, which is so far west its county seat of New Martinsville sits on the Ohio River, drivers fire up their diesel engines long before sunrise and run them well after dark. The only time trucks are not on the roads—in Wetzel, anyway—is when school buses are. To one man, the convoys represent just one impact that drilling for natural gas has had on rural life.
“We were invaded by a foreign army, but they weren’t armed,” said Bill Hughes, who has lived in Wetzel County since 1977. “They just had a lot of trucks.” Something similar to what is happening in Wetzel County could take place south and east of Fredericksburg if a Texas company gets permission to drill the region for natural gas.
Shore Exploration and Production Corp. already has leased more than 84,000 acres in what is known as the Taylorsville basin, and company officials have said they would like to drill by the end of this year or mid-2015. Hughes shared information he has gathered about the fallout from fracking, or hydraulic fracturing.
The process injects water and chemicals deep into the ground to fracture rocks where gas is trapped and release it to the surface. Hughes is a retired electrician, originally from Pittsburgh, who chose to live in the middle of nowhere, realizing he would pay more for gas and wear-and-tear on his vehicle.
But the trade-off was worth it, to breathe mountain air and see pastoral views, such as the hayfield across the road. The landscape around Hughes changed considerably after gas drillers started arriving in 2007. Horizontal drilling has been the real game changer for the industry, said Charlie Burd, executive director of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia. The method allows a drill to go down vertically, then turn sideways.
As the drill stretches across its horizontal plane, workers are able to fracture dozens of spots from one point. That means more gas coming out of the ground and more tanks, stations and processors to separate, dry and treat it. Tops of mountains are leveled so the infrastructure can be put in place, and swaths of trees are cleared, all the way down ridges, so underground pipelines can carry the gas to market.
Fleets of trucks bring the necessary drill rigs and wellheads, sand and diesel fuel to sites, then haul away chemically tainted fracking waste. “It is changing a very rural area to a very industrialized area,” Hughes said. Burd contends that new drilling techniques have made a bigger impact on communities, “but it’s no different a footprint than we always had.”
Wetzel County is at the bottom of the state’s northern panhandle and part of the Marcellus Shale formation, which stretches across West Virginia, Ohio, Pennsylvania and New York. The quantity of gas found in West Virginia has made it a player on a national scale.
In 2012, the state was, for the first time, one of the top 10 producers of natural gas in the country, according to the Energy Information Administration. More than 2,440 wells have been drilled in the state, and in 2012, they yielded $2.16 billion worth of natural gas, according to the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection. The same year, Wetzel County had the second-highest total of natural gas in the state.
With almost 400 wells, the county produced $254 million worth of gas, according the DEP. The Marcellus Shale has been a gold mine for the industry, but it has also been good for locals, Burd said.
West Virginia and its counties collected $79 million in tax revenue in 2012 in exchange for the natural gas that drillers drew out of the ground. “The benefits of gas drilling are phenomenal,” Burd said. “All 1.9 million people in West Virginia and all 55 counties benefit by this.”
GOOD FOR BUSINESSES
Burd said that drilling has created wealth for those who own hotels, restaurants and gas stations and brought jobs to people who drive heavy equipment and trucks. Workers at the New Martinsville Inn, one of four motels in town, concurred.
The motel is “pretty much” at capacity Sunday through Friday, every week of the year, said Betty Leek, assistant manager. “It’s really impacted our business,” she said. Clients are asked to wash off the fracking fluids before they come into the hotel. A sign on the front door reads: “Boot washing hose in the back.” Matt Quinet, owner of Quinet’s Court Restaurant, also has seen business improve. He has fed drillers at his place in downtown New Martinsville and, in 2011, had a sign outside his restaurant that declared: “We cater to on site frac[k] and drilling jobs.
” Drilling has created “overnight millionaires,” said Kyle Nuttall, an attorney in Buckhannon, south of Morgantown. “It can make a big difference in some peoples’ lives. ” Nuttall helps clients get the best deals when they sign leases and get royalty checks based on how much gas is found on their property.
But West Virginia has “split estates,” which means, in some cases, one person can own the surface of the property and another the ground underneath it. Whoever owns the underground, or the mineral rights, decides if gas companies can access the property.
They’re also the ones who reap the profits. Gas companies pay surface owners a one-time fee for the loss of their property. Bill Patterson was born in West Virginia, but left New Martinsville 17 years ago—with a small percentage of mineral rights in his pocket. He bought the rights at a tax sale in the 1980s, paying $300 for a one-eighteenth share of the mineral rights on 101 acres in Wetzel.
Patterson, who currently lives near Atlanta, started getting royalty checks in June of $4,000 per month. He bought a new riding lawnmower, set up college funds for each of his eight grandchildren and probably will use most of this year’s money to help his stepson through law school.
“The money has been good,” he said. Nuttall says 80 percent to 90 percent of the people he has worked with who own mineral rights in West Virginia live out of state. As a result, gas drilling “is not as good for West Virginia as it could have been,” he said.
‘THAT FLASH OF CASH’
That’s one of many sticking points for Hughes and Ed Wade Jr., who make up the Wetzel County Action Group. The two have monitored the impact of drilling on their community and posted photos of drilling, truck accidents and damage to roads and waterways. As Wade drove around country roads recently, he passed homes that were particularly untidy.
Every appliance the families seemingly ever owned had been tossed in the yards, sharing space with tires, parts from old cars and flocks of chickens. “As you can see, much of West Virginia is poverty-stricken,” Wade said. “It’s hard to say no to that flash of cash.” While some locals have benefited, Wade contends that much of the money goes out of state, and that West Virginians are as destitute as ever.
The U.S. Census Bureau’s 2011 American Community Survey backs up his theory. It rated West Virginia as the second-poorest state in the nation, based on its median household income of $38,482.
GOOD AND BAD EXAMPLES
Wade and Hughes pointed out examples of companies that play by the rules and those that don’t. At reputable sites, any item that has the potential to leak fluid—a gas can, generator or thousand-gallon tank—was self-contained.
It was on a platform covered with thick black plastic to eliminate the possibility of leakage. Sites were covered with gravel, and areas were bordered by berms. Other sites weren’t as pristine. At one place, an 8,000-gallon steel tank exploded in January and leaked blobs of black goo, Hughes said. Because companies don’t have to reveal all the chemicals used in the fracking process—for proprietary reasons—no one knew what the goo was, Hughes said. The slime eventually oozed into a nearby stream, which feeds into the drinking water for a town in Tyler County.
On March 28, emergency responders were called to the same scene after reports that eight people got sick from smells coming from the site. According to the recorded conversation between Tyler County responders and dispatchers, which was posted on YouTube, the responders said they felt nauseous within minutes of reaching the site.
They were told to evacuate those in the area. The responders couldn’t talk to the gas companies about the problem. One rescuer told his dispatcher, “They threatened to have us arrested if we stepped on their well site.” West Virginia law says fire officials are to be recognized at emergency scenes, “except on industrial property where trained industrial fire-fighting personnel are present.” The DEP notified the company on April 1 that it had violated air-quality regulations and faced a fine of $10,000 per day. The gas company has 30 days to respond.
A search of the state database shows that West Virginia’s Department of Environmental Protection brought 1,582 oil and gas violations against companies from January 2007 through March 2014. One fine that got news coverage in Charleston, the state capital, involved Chesapeake Energy Corp., the second-largest natural gas producer in the nation and one of the biggest players in the Marcellus. The company had 1.78 million acres leased for drilling in 2011, according to the Charleston Daily Mail.
Last year, the EPA fined Chesapeake $3.2 million and ordered another $6.5 million in restoration work.
The company had to repair 27 sites in eight counties, including Wetzel, where it buried streams and wetlands without permits, according to the EPA. Wade documented some of those violations and still carries around copies of the EPA orders. He continues to photograph violations, but no longer makes Freedom of Information Act requests for the documents.
“If you were to FOIA all the violations in the state of West Virginia, you’d need a pickup truck to carry them,” Wade said.
The fines against Chesapeake seem huge until they are compared with the investments companies make. Each well drilled in the Marcellus Shale costs $7.5 million to produce, according to a 2012 study by the University of Pittsburgh. Hughes acknowledges there’s a lot of concern in communities where fracking may take place about various aspects of pollution, including contamination of the water supply.
“In all honesty, that has not happened to the degree that people say it has,” Hughes said. The actual drilling of a well isn’t the major issue, he said, adding industry officials are accurate when they say fracking hasn’t contaminated water supplies. It’s all the other impacts that go beyond the drilling itself, from truck traffic and infrastructure to the loss of natural scenery. “Some companies do a good job, but it’s still a dirty process,” he said.
Cathy Dyson: 540/374-5425 email@example.com
WHY WETZEL COUNTY?
The Free Lance–Star recently visited Wetzel County in West Virginia and surrounding locales. Ed Wade Jr. and Bill Hughes of the Wetzel County Action Group gave a reporter and photographer a seven-hour tour of gas drilling sites and the accompanying infrastructure. Why Wetzel County? It has been “at the heart” of drilling for years, Hughes said.
Since 2007, gas companies have used hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, to stimulate the release of natural gas 7,000 feet beneath the surface. As governments in the Fredericksburg region have started to look at the issue of fracking and what regulations they may put in place, Wetzel County has been mentioned. King George County Supervisor Ruby Brabo held a town-hall meeting in January, which included Rockingham County officials’ presentation about their tour of Wetzel.
Also, the Friends of the Rappahannock is planning a “Tour de Frack” of Wetzel and hopes to take local officials there to “get a handle on what [gas drilling] does to the landscape,” Executive Director John Tippett said. Wetzel County is more than six hours from Fredericksburg, at the bottom of West Virginia’s northern panhandle. In no way does its geography resemble that of the Taylorsville basin east and south of Fredericksburg, where a Texas company has leased 84,000 acres for possible drilling.
“It’s definitely what’s underground that matters,” Tippett said.
BIG BUCKS, BUSINESS
There are 936 gas and oil companies registered with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to work in the state. Workers represent 26 states and have traveled from Oregon and Montana in the Northwest, Massachusetts and New York in the Northeast and Alabama and Louisiana in the South. The companies are investing big bucks in the West Virginia soil. A 2012 study by the University of Pittsburgh estimates that each Marcellus Shale well costs $7.5 million. The cost breaks down this way:
$2.5 MILLION Hydraulic fracturing $
2.1 MILLION Land acquisition and leasing
$ 1.2 MILLION Horizontal drilling
$663,000 Vertical drilling
$472,000 Production to gathering
$400,000 Site preparation