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WVU: Marcellus drill-site pits have problems

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- A legislatively mandated study by West Virginia University has found consistent and potentially significant problems with the way oil and gas companies build drilling waste pits and with how state regulators inspect those impoundments.

WVU engineers reported that field evaluations found insufficient compaction, soil erosion and seepage at sites where gas-drilling companies store wastewater from hydraulic fracturing and gas production activities.

Impoundments inspected as part of the study were found to be built larger than permitted, with different crest-berm widths and steeper upstream and downstream slopes than authorized.

While none of the problems "indicated imminent pit or impoundment failure potential," the WVU report warned, "the problems identified do constitute a real hazard and present risk if allowed to progress.

"Overall, these deficiencies reflect a lack of adherence to the best management practices . . . as well as poor construction knowledge," the 208-page report said. "These construction practices combined with a lack of field quality control and assurances are indicators of the source and frequency of the problems observed across all evaluated sites."

West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection officials, though, said the sites designed and constructed to current state standards scored higher on WVU's inspections than those built before new Marcellus Shale drilling regulations were enacted.

In a summary of the WVU report, the DEP said it "is able to conclude that the current regulatory framework is sufficient to properly regulate the construction, operation, and maintenance of large capacity pits and impoundments."

The report, required as part of West Virginia's new Marcellus drilling law, also found that none of the DEP inspectors had any formal training related to pit and impoundment inspection.

"Consequently, the inspectors only targeted the readily apparent problems such as slips and slides, while not recognizing, or fully understanding, the smaller problem indicators," the report said.

The report also said the DEP had no set frequency for site inspections, and that the actual frequency of inspections -- either by the DEP or the company involved -- varied from once every three days to once every two months. Inspection frequency by a professional engineer ranged from weekly to never, the report said.

"Infrequent inspections may allow problem areas to go unnoticed or delay corrective action," the report said.

In summarizing the WVU report for lawmakers, DEP officials said the agency has since provided additional training to inspectors on the proper design, construction and maintenance of pits and impoundments.

"Continuous improvement through training has been, and will continue to be, ongoing at numerous events in order to stay apprised of the new and constantly changing industrial activities associated with horizontal well drilling," the DEP said. "In addition, the OOG developed a standard inspection checklist to ensure that the inspection of pits and impoundments is standardized across the Office of Oil and Gas."

During a budget hearing Friday, DEP Office of Oil and Gas Chief James Martin told lawmakers his agency also has made progress using additional permit fees on the industry to hire additional inspectors.

The office now has 49 staff positions, up from 32. Agency officials have filled 41 of the 49 positions, and the eight vacancies are evenly split between enforcement and permitting functions, Martin said.

"We've been, I think, fairly successful," Martin said. "We've managed to hire folks, and we've gotten good people."

Under the law, passed during a special session in December 2011 and signed by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, the DEP was required to complete a study of oil and gas wastewater impoundments by Jan. 1.

The pits and impoundments report from WVU's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering was submitted to the DEP in mid-December.

In January, DEP Secretary Randy Huffman said work on the impoundment study was complete, but that its submission to the Legislature was delayed because of formatting problems. Huffman also said WVU researchers included some recommendations about the handling of gas-drilling wastewater that went beyond what they were actually asked by the DEP to do.

Two other documents from WVU were provided to the DEP in February, and the DEP released the material publicly last week.

A separate study on noise, light and dust from drilling operations was to be provided to the Legislature by Dec. 31, 2012, but is still not finished. A third study, examining possible air pollution from oil and gas operations, is due July 1.

In their push for more natural gas, drilling operators in West Virginia's Marcellus Shale region are increasingly using a process called hydraulic fracturing, which shoots vast amounts of water, sand and chemicals deep underground to break apart rock and release the gas. Operators also are using a process that involves drilling down and then turning horizontally to reach broader stretches of gas reserves.

Water from these processes, along with any "flowback" that returns to the surface, is frequently stored in large, centralized pits and impoundments at or near well locations. Oil and gas operators frequently re-use this water several times, but eventually the wastewater has to be disposed of. In West Virginia, that is typically done by injection into other underground wells.

In a four-page summary of the impoundments review, the DEP reported that, "based on sample results of both the material held in the structures and the groundwater below them, the study showed that no leakage was detected from the examined structures."

The WVU report itself said, "There was no evidence of significant leakage of flowbacks from the impoundments.

"While the monitoring wells detected no contaminants, it is not clear that the monitoring interval of 146 days was sufficient to capture any leakage from the impoundments," the WVU report said. "A longer sampling period is suggested with, perhaps, aquifer permeability testing."

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


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