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Review: Long list of public-health concerns related to proposed natural-gas well

A professional geologist’s review of an application for a Marcellus Shale natural-gas well in Rockingham County just released by local groups Community Alliance for Preservation, Shenandoah Riverkeeper and Shenandoah Valley Network, reveals a long list of environmental and public-health concerns related to the proposed well.

The report, conducted by Mark Quarles, P.G., of Global Environmental LLC of Nashville, cites the lack of a cleanup plan, the well’s proposed location in a floodplain, and the risks posed by nearby abandoned wells as serious causes for concern. For example, the applicant, Houston-based gas company Carrizo (Marcellus) LLC, states that “a Spill Prevention Control and Countermeasure plan is not required” to deal with potential environmental impacts at the proposed mining site. If developed, such a plan would outline steps to control dangers and risks associated with gas mining near Bergton, such as water contamination or fires, as well as measures to clean up accident sites.

“If you look at what’s happening with accidents, explosions and spills in communities where shale gas drilling is booming, this is particularly alarming. No cleanup plan? Local residents and our river deserve better,” said Shenandoah Riverkeeper Jeff Kelble.

The Bergton application, currently under consideration by the Rockingham County Board of Supervisors, would be the first natural-gas well in Virginia to use the unconventional shale gas hydraulic fracturing process, which has been linked to industrial accidents and water contamination in several states. County planning staff have recommended a series of conditions on the special use permit.

Kim Sandum, director of Community Alliance for Preservation in Rockingham, points out that a lack of federal or state regulations that protect water quality and drinking water supplies from the impacts of Marcellus Shale gas mining leaves local officials with a big responsibility.

“Our county staff and supervisors are really doing their homework, trying to understand the risks of this proposal with little guidance from the state or federal government. This is a complicated issue with serious consequences if things go wrong,” Sandum said.

In March, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in March launched a two-year study on drinking water impacts of hydraulic fracturing, with results expected in 2012.

According to Kelble, many of the risks outlines in the geologist’s report could be addressed if Virginia’s natural resource agencies, such as the Department of Environmental Quality, the Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries were involved. Currently, only the state DMME regulates the process.

In response to a written question about the role of Virginia’s natural resource agencies, Deputy Director Bradley C. Lambert stated that “we are not authorized to admit other state or federal agencies onto well sites without the well operator’s permission.”

Accidents are not uncommon in unconventional natural gas mining. In Pennsylvania, 1,435 violations by Marcellus shale drilling/mining companies were documented in two and a half years between January 2008 and June 2010. In Colorado, the Denver Post reported over 5 million gallons of drilling liquid and oil spilled in almost 1,000 accidents over a similar time period. A Marcellus Shale gas well exploded June 3 in Clearfield County, Pa., spewing natural gas and toxic wastewater for 16 hours before it could be capped.

State officials fined the operator, EOG Resources Inc., $400,000 in July for failing to provide sufficient controls at the well site and criticized the company for a three to five-hour delay before officials were notified about the blowout. A contaminated spring has since been cleaned-up. During the same week, a Marcellus gas well exploded in West Virginia, shooting flames over 70 feet high and injuring seven workers.

Kate Wofford of the Shenandoah Valley Network said that “the Global Environmental LLC Report highlights what many of us have suspected from the beginning.”

“If the Bergton well is developed as it has been approved by the state DMME, there is a potential for devastating effects to nearby wells, the local streams, and downstream water users on the North Fork,” Wofford said.

Edited by Chris Graham. Chris can be reached at