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McCawley reacts to DEP report on his wellpad air quality data

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West Virginia University professor Michael McCawley agrees with the state Department of Environmental Protection's assessment that no new regulations are needed at this time with regard to wellpad air quality.

He just thinks that assessment doesn't go quite far enough.

"Part of the reason for that is they don't have enough information for new regulations," McCawley said.

DEP submitted to the state Legislature on June 28 its horizontal drilling air quality report — the third of three reports lawmakers requested when they passed the Natural Gas Horizontal Well Control Act in December 2011.

The report was based in part on data gathered by contract to DEP under the supervision of McCawley, who is chairman of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health in WVU's School of Public Health, and submitted to the department as part of a larger noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds study aimed at assessing the effectiveness of setting the centers of wellpads no closer than 625 feet from occupied dwellings.

Among other findings, the data indicated that benzene may pose a health hazard in some instances. Benzene is a volatile organic compound that causes irritation of the skin, eyes and upper respiratory tract and, with longer exposure, blood disorders, reproductive and developmental disorders and cancer, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

DEP's summary in the June 28 air quality report to the Legislature indicated that no new rules are needed and did not mention benzene, although its second report did mention the benzene finding.

The agency already recommended that lawmakers consider increasing wellpad setback distances, which would help with any air quality concerns, said Renu Chakrabarty, air toxics coordinator for DEP's Division of Air Quality and project coordinator for the Horizontal Well Control Act data-gathering effort. It also suggested that the state's law minimizing the idling of diesel engines could be better enforced.

The agency's report to the Legislature did not mention the study's suggestion that a health effects-based wellpad setback proposal might require a three-year sampling effort.

"A more definitive sampling and health effects study needs to be done in West Virginia to address the issues of potential exposures from gas drilling to the people in the state," one study recommendation reads. The state's hilly topography particularly allows for the concentration of contaminants and of atmospheric inversions that trap contaminants low in the atmosphere. Three years of data on various contaminants in various topographies would allow for an evaluation of health risks in comparison with federal air quality standards.

"Each site has its own unique terrain and meteorology that are going to play into a site-specific analysis," Chakrabarty said in partial explanation of the DEP's choice not to highlight that suggestion for the Legislature. And big studies are expensive, she pointed out.

The DEP's report to the Legislature also did not mention the study's suggestion that, short of a three-year data-gathering effort, the industry could monitor its own activities to assure control of emissions. The study says the industry uses wellpad noise monitors in Texas and suggests that all potential hazards could be monitored similarly.

"The regulations do say that for these kinds of operations in general you should use the best available control technology," McCawley elaborated in an interview.

"DEP could use that to come up with novel approaches. One I've suggested is fenceline monitors," he continued. "The industry could put up monitors near sensitive locations. If there's a house nearby, put one there, and use the data as feedback to the people who are controlling what's going on. They could change what they're doing and how they're doing it to be more in control of the operation."

He said he spoke with a company several weeks ago that is interested in fenceline monitoring.

McCawley encourages people who are interested in wellpad air quality and in rules related to that to read his study.

"The whole study is 250 pages long, but the gist is in the first 30 pages or so," he said.