DEP defends omission of benzene results in air quality report - Clarksburg, Morgantown: News, Sports, Weather

DEP defends omission of benzene results in air quality report

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Findings of elevated levels of benzene were omitted from the Department of Environmental Protection's June 28 report to the Legislature on horizontal drilling air quality because they'd been mentioned previously.

DEP had discussed those results in the May 28 report on noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds, according to Renu Chakrabarty, air toxics coordinator for DEP's Division of Air Quality and project coordinator for the Horizontal Well Control Act data-gathering effort.

"We didn't want to be repetitive," Chakrabarty said.

The data were collected by West Virginia University under contract to DEP as part of the three reports mandated by the Legislature in the December 2011 Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act. The air quality study was the last of the three to be submitted. The air quality data were gathered under the supervision of WVU School of Public Health professor Michael McCawley.

"In our analysis of the study that WVU did for us, we did find that some of the benzene levels were elevated sometimes at some sites; that did not hold true across all three types of … monitoring equipment that we had out at each site," Chakrabarty said. "One out of three of those methods did show elevated values — so we don't want to discount that, but we didn't have correlation."

The lack of correlation led DEP to conclude that, where detected, the benzene did not come from relatively continuous wellpad activity but from more intermittent diesel engine activity.

Chakrabarty also said the McCawley study gives a "looser interpretation" of the data than "fairly careful regulatory criteria" that DEP has to follow.

Her example was that WVU compared the characteristics of air collected over three days in vacuum canisters — devices that are placed in one location and set to draw air in over a given period of time — with standards that are meant for yearly averages.

Comparing the three-day averages with a federal one-year standard is a way to highlight what might need further study, but, she said, does not give an indication about health effects that calls for a regulatory response.

Chakrabarty reiterated, as stated in the report, that DEP has improved its internal training to oil and gas as well as air inspectors on ways to mitigate noise, dust and air emissions, and also has been working with the regulated community about common sense mitigation measures.

And she restated the report's point that the state's anti-engine idling law is not enforced as widely as it could be, but falls outside DEP's jurisdiction.

DEP did not reference McCawley's observation that a health-based wellpad setback recommendation would require at least three years of data gathering.

"We don't think we need three more years of data to start talking to our sources about mitigation efforts and to highlight the anti-idling act out there," she said, adding that studies cost money and that the data DEP contracted for with WVU cost $600,000, even with $400,000 in data gathered at no cost to the state by the U.S. Department of Energy.

A significant part of the DEP's air quality report to the Legislature referenced other state and federal air quality studies that are under way, with the implication that those studies could inform future rulemaking.

Asked whether the DEP will take the results of those studies into account and how the public will know that has been done, Chakrabarty said, "we all keep abreast of what's going on in our field of expertise and see if it's something applicable here in West Virginia. (DEP staff) kind of adapt practices and policies and, over time, rules as well. It's a dynamic, organic process — something that kind of happens by dint of working in the field."

A presentation McCawley made on Friday, June 28 in Wheeling about another wellpad air quality study has received some media attention; Chakrabarty wanted to make it clear that that was not DEP's study, but another one.