NEW MARTINSVILLE, W.Va. - Levels of carcinogenic benzene in the air 625 feet away from one natural gas drill site were so bad that a West Virginia University professor said he would recommend "respiratory protection."
Although these extreme levels of benzene lasted for only about three hours at one particular site, Michael McCawley, chairman of the department of occupational and environmental health sciences in the school of public health at WVU, said the readings show that air emissions from Marcellus and Utica shale drilling need more regulation.
A West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection study, which the state Legislature requested and which included McCawley's work, does not recommend any change to existing state law, noting "no additional legislative rules establishing special requirements need to be promulgated at this time." The report concludes there are no indications of a public health emergency or threat based on air quality monitoring data.
However, McCawley said this is only a small part of the picture because the DEP study primarily dealt with whether the Legislature should extend the current 625-foot setback requirement for wells to be located away from occupied dwellings.
"Not everything happens at the center of the well pad, the way the Legislature seems to believe," McCawley said. "Distance is less important than monitoring."
In multiple legal advertisements during the past few years, natural gas producers have confirmed the "potential to discharge" various amounts of these materials into the air on an annual basis from the operations at the natural gas wells and compressor stations:
Carbon dioxide equivalent
McCawley studied the air near seven wells throughout the state, including five in Wetzel County, one in Brooke County and one in Marion County. Each well was in a different stage of development at the time he monitored them from July through October 2012.
He said benzene was the primary constituent that he found at the sites, though he does not believe all of this came from the well itself.
"It appears the diesel activity at the well sites could be contributing to the readings we are seeing at the sites," McCawley said.
For those who live in the rural areas near these well sites, such as Wetzel County Action Group member Bill Hughes, the time for more regulation is now.
"These things are totally unregulated, unmonitored and unaccounted for," Hughes said of the air emissions from well pads. "The diesel fumes are continuous and almost unbearable. My neighbors do not live in the country to constantly breath in diesel fumes."
In terms of the immediate hazards for those living in the vicinity of natural gas wells, McCawley said, "There is cause for concern." However, he said the Legislature does not have to change any rules to protect public health because he believes the DEP already has all the authority it needs. The DEP study determines the agency already has the "regulatory framework" to reduce air emissions from drilling. McCawley would like to see this put into action.
"The DEP could require companies to monitor their own air emissions as a way to control this," he said. "That way, they could at least know when there is a problem."
McCawley also said he is working with the Wheeling-Ohio County Health Department to conduct a long-term study regarding how drilling is impacting Ohio County's air quality.
"You are not necessarily going to see benzene at well sites. But we need to know what is being emitted, how it is being emitted and for how long it is being emitted," he said.
Hughes agrees, noting his neighbors do not want their children or grandchildren to get sick from the fumes.
"We will make no progress in minimizing the long-term regional air quality deterioration in our state until we formulate a process that requires all natural gas exploration and production companies to inventory and measure all emissions," he added.