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Wastewater From Gas Drilling Raises Concerns

February 3, 2010
By CASEY JUNKINS With AP Dispatches

WHEELING - A method of natural gas drilling that may soon be employed at Oglebay Park can yield a troubling byproduct: very briny wastewater that regulators believe can kill fish and sour tap water.

Oglebay Foundation President G. Randolph Worls, however, firmly believes the company slated to drill at the park - Chesapeake Appalachia - will take measures to prevent this wastewater from escaping into the local ecosystem.

"There will not be any problems with this kind of water getting out around here," Worls said. "Chesapeake is a very cautious company - that is why we went with them."

"If they drill, this is one of their concerns. ... This is an issue the company must resolve," he added.

Worls said Chesapeake is responsible for any potential environmental damage the company's operations may cause. A damage clause in the agreement states the company would be responsible for "all surface damages caused by lessee's operations to improvements, landscaping, growing crops, trees and timber."

Chesapeake officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

Worls said Chesapeake officials have decided on the site - about 1,300 feet southwest of the Oglebay Stables and 600 feet north of the main park entrance road - they would most-likely drill on first. The park commission approved five other sites for potential drilling, though Worls said the action would be limited to three total sites.

"It is our hope that the drilling will begin sometime this year," Worls said.

Drilling crews across the country have been flocking since late 2008 to the Marcellus Shale throughout Appalachia, like that which lies under Oglebay and Wheeling parks. With the shale reserves stretching from New York to West Virginia, geologists say it could become the most productive natural gas field in the U.S., capable of supplying the entire country's needs for up to two decades by some estimates.

Before that can happen, the industry is realizing that it must solve the challenge of what to do with its wastewater. As a result, the Marcellus Shale is on its way to being the nation's first gas field where drilling water is widely reused. The polluted water comes from a drilling technique known as hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," in which millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals are blasted into each well to fracture tightly compacted shale and release trapped natural gas.

Fracking has been around for decades. But the drilling companies are now using it in conjunction with a new horizontal drilling technique they brought to Appalachia after it was proven in the 1990s to be effective on a shale formation beneath Texas. Fracking a horizontal well costs more money and uses more water, but it produces more natural gas from shale than a traditional vertical well.

Once the rock is fractured, some of the water - estimates range from 15 to 40 percent - comes back up the well. When it does, it can be five times saltier than seawater and laden with dissolved solids such as sulfates and chlorides, which conventional sewage and drinking water treatment plants are not equipped to remove.

At first, many drilling companies hauled away the wastewater in tanker trucks to sewage treatment plants that processed the water and discharged it into rivers - the same rivers from which water utilities then drew drinking water. But in October 2008, something happened that stunned environmental regulators: The levels of dissolved solids spiked above government standards in southwestern Pennsylvania's Monongahela River, a source of drinking water for more than 700,000 people.

One 11-year-old suburban Pittsburgh boy with an allergy to sulfates, Jay Miller, developed hives that itched for two weeks until his mother learned about the Monongahela's pollution and switched him to bottled or filtered water. No harm to aquatic life was reported, though high levels of salts and other minerals can kill fish and other creatures, regulators say. Pennsylvania officials immediately ordered five sewage treatment plants on the Monongahela or its tributaries to sharply limit the amount of frack water they accepted to 1 percent of their daily flow.

West Virginia authorities have asked sewage treatment plants not to accept frack water while the state develops an approach to regulating dissolved solids. In addition, a $15 million treatment plant that distills frack water is opening in Fairmont, W.Va. The 200,000 gallons it can treat each day can then be trucked back for use at a new drilling site.

Recently, Chesapeake paid Wheeling and the Wheeling Park Commission $386,629 each to lease possible drilling sites at Oglebay Park. Wheeling leaders have not yet determined what to do with this revenue. Chesapeake also paid the commission $100,133 to lease property at Wheeling Park. Worls said commissioners would place their share of the lease money into "an endowment for future park maintenance," though he would not commit to any specific projects.

Following some debate over environmental concerns in October, Wheeling City Council voted 6-1 (with Councilman Robert "Herk" Henry opposing the measure) to allow Chesapeake to drill on city-owned property at Oglebay and Wheeling parks.

For land titled to the "city of Wheeling" or the "Wheeling Park Commission" within Oglebay Park, the profits from drilling - lease revenue and royalties - must be equally divided between the two entities, thus the equal split of $773,258 in lease payments. Money from properties titled to "Wheeling Park" will be used to improve that facility. Gas production royalties are set at 14 percent.

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