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Turf war shaping up between coal, gas

The controversy about drilling natural gas and oil wells through coal seams might grow in coming weeks, sparked by the possibility that natural gas from wells could have leaked into the Sago Mine, causing a deadly explosion.

Last Thursday, the West Virginia Board of Coal Mine Health and Safety talked about the possible role that gas escaping from nearby wells might have played in the mine tragedy.

In a related controversy, seven coal companies, Pocahontas Land Co. and the West Virginia Coal Association filed a petition against Cabot Oil & Gas Corp. in McDowell County Circuit Court.

That petition for a preliminary injunction seeks to stop Cabot from drilling more wells in mining areas. Some gas wells pass through four different coal seams being mined today or that can be mined in the future.

Gas companies such as Cabot also use haul roads already built by coal companies, frequently damaging them.

Gas well development often threatens the safety of coal miners, gas company drillers and local communities, according to Nicholas C. Preservati, a Charleston lawyer who represents the coal and land companies in the legal action.

“This is not about coal versus gas,” Preservati said on Saturday. “It is about stopping third parties from creating dangerous conditions on mine property.

“The problem is only going to get worse. The number of wells being drilled continues to increase, while the number of safe locations to drill wells continues to decrease,” Preservati said.

Cabot Gas now has the largest drilling program in its history, with fuel demand and prices soaring. It drilled 44 new wells in 2002 and 98 in 2003. Last year, Cabot developed 200 new wells.

Documents and photographs attached to the petition reveal a variety of environmental and safety problems created by these new wells, including:

s Damage to existing coal haul roads.

s Pollution of streams and mine retaining ponds from stormwaters crossing roads damaged by gas drilling. Cabot filled up a third of one Westwood retaining pond with waste materials.

s Gas transmission pipelines located on, or just below, the land surface, could be damaged by coal-hauling trucks and other vehicles traveling on haul roads coal companies built.

Cabot often lays down gas transmission lines without even informing coal companies where they are, the petition states.

Tim Miller, a lawyer with Robinson & McElwee, represents Cabot Gas. On Friday, Miller said he could not comment about the petition.

Nicholas “Corky” DeMarco, a spokesman for the West Virginia Oil and Gas Association, said Friday that leaders from both industries are trying to work out their differences.

Coal companies that filed the McDowell County petition include: Concept Mining Inc., Phoenix Enterprises Inc., Imperial Resources LLC, McDowell-Pocahontas Coal Co., Westwood Mining Co., Alpha Land & Reserves and Riverside Energy Co.

Some of the damage is occurring on lands that coal companies reclaimed after completing mining.

Westwood Mining, for example, removed an old coal cleaning plant and reclaimed its mine area. Shortly after Westwood completed its reclamation work, but before the state released Westwood’s reclamation bond, Cabot Gas regraded the land surface and polluted nearby streams and ponds.

The state Department of Environmental Protection then informed Westwood “it would be penalized for Cabot’s disturbance of its bonded and permitted area,” the petition states.

At Concept Mining’s Walcoal Mine, when Cabot cleared areas to drill new gas wells, it “pushed all of the spoil material into the perennial stream that flows past the deep mine,” the petition states.

Randy Spencer, a Cabot spokesman, testified that his company did not request approval from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers before polluting streams because the corps has no jurisdiction over Cabot’s operations, the petition states.

Spencer also testified that Cabot “does not follow MSHA regulations ... because MSHA also has no jurisdiction over Cabot’s operations.”

As a result, coal companies like Westwood and Concept might be liable to pay fines for pollution created by Cabot Gas.

MSHA also requires workers to complete 24 hours of special safety training when they work on or near active coal mines for five consecutive days. Cabot does not provide that training, the petition states.

Gas companies must receive DEP permits before they begin any drilling. Typically, gas permit applications are 10 pages long, or briefer. Coal mine permit applications, on the other hand, are often 4 feet thick.

The DEP generally grants gas drilling permits within a couple of weeks, while it often takes two years to give a coal company a new mining permit.

The petition asks the McDowell County Court to require Cabot to reclaim any roads, ditches, streams and mountainsides it has disturbed on areas permitted to the mining companies.

Today, mining companies must spend their own resources to reclaim environmental damage from Cabot Gas, or those companies will face fines and permit revocations from the DEP.

The leases Cabot Gas signed with Pocahontas Land Corp. specifically state that, “the mining and shipping of coal ... is of prime importance to [Pocahontas] and that the coal [reserves] under said lands are the dominant estate and the oil and gas estate are made servient thereto.”

The legal petition concludes: “Public policy weighs in favor of ensuring miner safety and in favor of protecting the environment. In this case, Cabot has shown that it is not interested in adhering to either of these policies.”

The petition seeks an injunction to prohibit Cabot from drilling any new wells, laying any new pipelines and traveling on any haul roads on lands permitted to coal mines.

Preservati added, “The problem is not limited to McDowell County. It affects miners statewide and nationwide. It needs to be addressed at both the state and federal levels.”

To contact staff writer Paul J. Nyden, use e-mail or call 348-5164.


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