Commission tours Wetzel County gas field
Pocahontas County Commissioners traveled to Wetzel County last Thursday to see firsthand the impacts of Marcellus Shale gas drilling. Commissioners David Fleming, Jamie Walker and Martin Saffer spent more than five hours speaking with landowners, visiting well sites, compressor stations and driving on the county's back roads on a trip arranged by Stamping Creek resident Brynn Kusic.
The tour of the Chesapeake Energy gas fields of Wetzel County was lead by Wetzel County Action Group members Rose Baker and Bill Hughes. The watchdog group has been documenting the activities of Chesapeake and its subcontractors in Wetzel County since 2007.
The stated mission of the group is to "support economic development for the county and state; and work to ensure that economic development does not negatively impact the safety, economic interests, and quality of life of the Citizens of Wetzel County."
In the past four years, the group has documented on its website, wcag-wv.org dozens of tractor trailer accidents and dangerous driving conditions on Wetzel County roads, as well as spills and leaks on and around well pads.
During Thursday's tour, commissioners visited a half dozen of the more than 20 active well pads in eastern Wetzel County and southern Marshall County.
One of these well pads sits on the property of Dewey Teal. While he owns the surface rights on his 19 acres, the owner of the mineral rights lives in Charleston, Teal explained. Teal told commissioners he came home one day to find five acres of his land cleared and excavated, without any prior word from Chesapeake or its subcontractors. Those five acres, said Teal, included his family's garden and access to his woodlot.
What commissioners saw Thursday on the site across the road from Teal's house was a five-acre, graveled well pad with two wellheads, four storage tanks and two large evaporators. Drilling of the two wells was completed about a year and a half ago, said Teal. The process took six months of round-the-clock work. During that period, Teal said, the lights and sound of diesel engines and pumps resulted in a lot of sleepless nights for him and his family.
"They said once they were through here I'd have homesites and all that, once they were done," Teal told the commissioners. "They said all I would see are these two wellheads. Well, you can see how much stuff you can see here now."
"They also told me I could have free gas," he added, "but that went out the door when they were done drilling. They said no, you have to have a $30,000 regulator."
While drilling is finished for now, there is still gas company activity on Teal's land. The well pad's tanks are emptied three times each week by a pair of 3,000-gallon tanker trucks. The separators and compressors connected to the wells are in continuous operation. When the gate to the property is unlocked or left open, Teal says the site is used as a truck-turnaround by drivers working on neighboring well pads.
While Teal is unable to use the five acres where the well pad sits, he told commissioners he still has to pay property taxes on it.
But what seems to bother Teal even more than this is what happened to his water.
"They polluted my water and everything else," he said. "My pony won't even drink water out of the well any more. I have to haul water from town. And we just buy our drinking water and haul water from town to wash."
"I drank the water out of that well for 35 years," said Teal.
In addition to surface owners like Teal, Pocahontas County commissioners saw the wide rights-of-way being cleared and excavated for the pipelines that are collecting gas from Wetzel County well sites and taking it to the three compressor stations in the county. In one location commissioners visited, the right-of way is as wide as a two-lane road, passing within 100 feet of the front porch of a house. Hughes said work on the new pipelines began about two years ago.
While drilling has been completed on the well pads visited by commissioners, they saw several convoys of oversized trucks plying Wetzel County's back roads. In most cases, the convoys are lead by a pilot vehicle warning oncoming traffic of the oversized vehicles behind. The pilot vehicle is then followed by three 18-wheelers-typically tankers. Bringing up the rear is usually a smaller tanker, pump, or roll-back truck.
In several instances during the commission's tour, there was little room for the vehicles of Baker and Hughes to get past the convoys on the narrow roads. A sign at one 18-percent grade warned motorists to "yield to heavy downhill traffic."
The roads themselves often showed signs of damage from the heavy truck traffic-crumbling shoulders, large potholes and washboarding pavement. While Chesapeake and its subcontractors recently finished summer maintenance on the roads they are using-as part of the company's bond agreement with the state-Hughes said the combination of truck traffic with wet weather and winter snow can turn the roads into a rutted mess. In some instances, Hughes said he has watched subcontractors use heavy equipment such as graders or dozers on county roads to tow trucks through the snow to well pads.
While local job creation is often touted as one of the benefits of drilling, most of the trucks bore emblems of companies based in Pennsylvania or counties outside of Wetzel. Unemployment data from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows little difference between Wetzel County and the rest of the state. In 2006-the year before drilling activity began-Wetzel County's unemployment rate hovered around seven percent. From 2007 until now, the county's unemployment rate has followed a similar curve to that of the rest of West Virginia, with spikes well above that of the state average. As of July 2011, the last month for which data is available, Wetzel County's unemployment rate was 10.9 percent, while the state average was 7.3 percent. Pocahontas County's rate at that time was nine percent.
Commissioners said they were also surprised to see how much excavation each well pad required. Nearly all of the sites are on ridges. The sites are leveled, and the land is terraced where the ridge slopes away from the well pad. Commissioners saw several instances where the earth on these reworked ridges had slipped and failed, sending tons of earth downhill.
On the car ride back from Wetzel County Thursday evening, the commissioners shared their thoughts about what they saw that day.
"Drilling for gas is definitely an industrial activity," said commissioner Martin Saffer. "There's just no other way to paint it. It's a big-scale, industrial enterprise, which looks to me to be growing in scale and intensity and seriousness."
"The decision the county has to make is that-is this the kind of life we want to have, or do we want to live in the environment that we presently have and that we all enjoy?" Saffer continued. "Or do we want to become an industrialized community. That's a choice of lifestyle and a choice of values that we as a community are going to have to make."
Commissioner Jamie Walker said he was surprised by the problems he saw with the excavation at several well pads.
"The main concern I see with it was the devastation of the stability of the ground once they leveled it off," Walker said. "I think that's something that should be worked on."
"It's definitely going to change the whole view and outlook when it's done," Walker added, "but I think it's up to the responsibility of the landowner to determine whether he thinks its a good idea or whether he would benefit by it."
Commission President David Fleming said he was struck by the noise and scale of what he saw in Wetzel County.
"The compressor stations were significantly larger than I thought they would be, and they're constantly noisy," he said. "The truck traffic, while down today, was still pretty substantial, noisy and tricky to get by on these narrow roads. The visual presence of the drilling pads was more than I thought it would be. There are visible structures on each pad. In addition to the wellhead, there's separator machinery, there's a diesel engine running on every one, so there's constant noise there."
Fleming said he was also disturbed by what he saw on Dewey Teal's land.
"They bulldozed his garden," Fleming said. "He seems to have no rights as to what is done on his land. The gas company told him when they're done, they'd reclaim it, but he has no idea when 'done' is going to happen. While drilling is over, they continue to use his site as a truck turn around spot."
"It's not fair that he has to pay property taxes on land that he basically has no control over," Fleming added.
Fleming said the commission would have a lot to think about as it continues to wrestle with the issue and balance concerns over safety, property rights and quality of life in Pocahontas County.