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DEP behind schedule on gas drilling studies

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- State regulators are behind schedule on the release of two key studies mandated as part of the legislation that Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin touted as a "milestone" in addressing concerns about the boom in natural gas drilling in Marcellus Shale regions of West Virginia.

In the bill, lawmakers ordered the state Department of Environmental Protection to conduct studies of noise, light and dust from drilling operations, air pollution from well sites, and the use of wastewater impoundments by the oil and gas industry.

The study on noise, light and dust was to be provided to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2012, and the study on wastewater impoundments by Jan. 1, 2013. Neither report has been finalized and given to lawmakers, officials confirmed this week.

DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said work on the impoundment study is complete but that there were problems with the formatting of a report prepared for the DEP by researchers at West Virginia University.

"We don't have it in a complete document that I feel comfortable turning in," Huffman said Tuesday.

Huffman added that WVU researchers included some recommendations about the handling of wastewater used in gas drilling that went beyond what they were technically asked to do, and the DEP wanted to remove those portions before submitting the report to lawmakers.

"There's nothing wrong with them making those kinds of recommendations, but that's not what was asked for," Huffman said.

Under the Horizontal Well Act, passed during a December 2011 special session, the wastewater impoundment study was to examine "the safety of pits and impoundments ... including an evaluation of whether testing and special regulatory provision is needed for radioactivity or other toxins held in the pits and impoundments."

"Upon a finding that greater monitoring, safety and design requirements or other specialized permit conditions are necessary," the DEP is required to propose new rules to establish those requirements.

Huffman said he anticipates that lawmakers will want to see some results from this study when the new legislative session begins in mid-February, and he hopes to have a report completed by then.

In another study, the DEP was to examine "the noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds generated by the drilling of horizontal wells" to determine if a 625-foot buffer zone between drill sites and homes was adequate. If the buffer distance is determined to be inadequate, the DEP would have authority to propose new rules to deal with the issue.

Huffman said that study, due to lawmakers by Dec. 31, 2012, is not close to being finished.

"That one has a lot of holes and gaps in it," Huffman said. "There is still some data to be collected. We don't have a date yet on when it will be done."

The third study required by the legislation -- examining air pollution from oil and gas operations -- is not due to lawmakers until July 1, 2013.

Reach Ken Ward Jr. at kward@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1702.


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