WHEELING - Roughly 1,700 Wheeling Park High School students are still waiting to learn if Chesapeake Energy will have a natural gas well about 1,300 feet from the building upon their return to class in the fall.
Ohio County Schools officials filed objections to the well plan with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection - including one sent via certified mail directly to DEP Secretary Randy Huffman - citing the possibility of an "explosion, spill, trucking accident, fire or other emergency." This letter supplements comments the school district previously made regarding the problems with Chesapeake's evacuation plans and potential dangers from increased truck traffic.
Meanwhile, children attending Warwood School are even closer to the 1923-built Wheeling water treatment plant and the chlorine and other chemicals used there. Wheeling Water Superintendent William Huggins said the most recent chlorine gas leak at the plant led to the temporary lockdown of the school - located about 75 feet from the plant - in 2009.
Photo by Casey Junkins
As officials with Ohio County Schools object to a Chesapeake Energy natural gas drilling site about 1,300 feet from Wheeling Park High School, the Warwood School sits just about 75 feet from the Wheeling water treatment plant.
"If we have any chlorine leak, we notify 911. The school is then notified," said Huggins. "We have a very good relationship with the school."
No school officials have filed objections to activities at the water plant.
Warwood School - which serves students in kindergarten through eighth grade from the areas of Warwood, Clinton Hills, Riley Hill, Cherry Hill, Clearview, Stone & Shannon, Table Rock, Betty Zane Addition, Dean's Hill and Shawnee Hills - was built in 1942, 19 years after the nearby water plant.
The following questions were posed to current Board of Education President Erik Schramm and schools spokesman Gabe Wells:
-- "Why is the Chesapeake well that will be 1,300 feet from WPHS so much more of a concern than the Wheeling water plant, which is just 75 feet from the Warwood School?"
-- "How have incidents at the water plant affecting the school been handled?"
In response, Schramm stressed that the water plant and Warwood School have been beside each other far too long for anyone now involved in government to oppose such placement.
The land on which Chesapeake intends to drill the well is owned by the Park System Trust Fund of Wheeling, whose members consist of the same individuals who serve on the Wheeling Park Commission - the municipal organization tasked with overseeing Oglebay Park and the Wheeling Park recreational area.
Commission attorney James Gardill and Commission President and Chief Executive Officer J. Douglas Dalby have said the drilling issues must be resolved by the school, Chesapeake and the DEP.
"I have known almost all of the Park System Trustees/Commissioners my entire life and have respected them as individuals. I believe they are good people, but on this matter they have made a very poor decision," Schramm said regarding their decision to sign the lease with Chesapeake to allow drilling in the general vicinity of WPHS.
Gardill could not be reached for comment regarding Schramm's statement.
One of the concerns the 20 individual objectors cite at the WPHS well site is possible air pollution at the school because of the close proximity. Chesapeake, in legal advertisements, cites the "potential to discharge" an array of air pollutants from its Sand Hill and Battle Run compressor stations, as well as some local gas well sites throughout Ohio County. Some of these are methane, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, benzene and formaldehyde.
Warwood School could potentially be affected by a chlorine gas leak at the water plant. According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health, chlorine poisoning can lead to breathing problems, a severe change in the acid levels of the blood, loss of vision, severe burning of the skin, severe vomiting and collapse.
Huggins said plans are in the works to eliminate the use of chlorine once the city is able to build its new water treatment plant. He said a substance known as sodium hypochlorite would then be used in place of the chlorine.
"Overall, sodium hypochlorite is safer for our neighbors and for the environment," Huggins said.
According to the library of medicine and national institutes, overexposure to sodium hypochlorite could lead to coughing, burning eyes and possible burns on the esophagus.
Huggins said the new plant may still be a few years from becoming a reality. This is because the Public Service Commission of West Virginia has yet to approve the water rate increase needed to construct the new facility, with its roughly $36 million price tag.
As for the school district and the matter of the Chesapeake site 1,300 feet from WPHS, Schramm again emphasized district objections are a matter of safety.
"We also believe we have a duty to ensure any development on our property, or near to our property, which effects our students, faculty, staff and community is done responsibly and safely. The location at issue is simply not safe for a myriad of reasons and therefore we oppose it," he said.
Schramm also said the school district explored the idea of leasing some of its land for oil and gas exploration in the area of Dallas Pike Road, but eventually discovered the district did not own the mineral rights to the property.
"Our Board of Education and our Administration recognize and support the wonderful economic development opportunity the oil and gas industry brings to our community," he added.
Ohio County Schools will get no lease money or royalty payments for the gas Chesapeake takes from the land near WPHS because the district has no lease agreement with Chesapeake. This contrasts sharply with the deal involving Brooke County Schools, as that district will gain $3,500 per acre on 189 acres. And Brooke County Schools stands to gain 18 percent of production royalties once Chesapeake gets the gas flowing from under Brooke High School. Brooke officials have filed no objections to Chesapeake's drilling plans there, noting they believe the company will do its best to prevent any accidents.