WHEELING - When 6,000 gallons of water and "drilling mud" blasted into Becky and John Wieczorkowski's Valley Grove home last month, it was only the latest in a string of natural gas pipeline-related problems impacting the Ohio Valley over the last two years.
As drillers continue working in the Marcellus and Utica shale regions, some focus their concerns on potential water pollution from fracking, while others consider air pollution from well sites or compressor stations to be a major threat. Still others consider potential radioactivity from the frack water that GreenHunter Water will recycle at its planned facility in the Warwood section of Wheeling to be a health hazard.
However, the October incident in Valley Grove is just the latest in a series of pipeline-related problems throughout the Upper Ohio Valley over the past two years:
- Summer 2012 - Numerous pipeline companies caused problems in Marshall County by cutting through public waterlines.
- March 2013 - A 24-inch Williams Energy pipeline ruptured near Cameron. No injuries were reported, but nearby residents reported seeing a "mushroom cloud" of dirt and debris from the blast.
- August 2013 - A pipeliner working for Shaheen Pipeline died as a result of a construction accident in Jefferson County.
- August 2013 - A MarkWest Energy natural gas liquids pipeline failed in northern Wetzel County, causing the death of an unspecified number of minnows, smallmouth bass and other species of fish. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection cited MarkWest for "conditions not allowable in the waters of the state."
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, this Wetzel County MarkWest incident resulted in the loss of 11,405 gallons of natural gas liquids, while causing $4.9 million worth of damage.
- October 2013 - Becky and John Wieczorkowski's Valley Grove home was flooded and ripped apart after 6,000 gallons of water and "drilling mud" from a nearby MarkWest pipeline operation infiltrated the house.
- October 2013 - The West Virginia DEP cited MarkWest for "conditions not allowable in the waters of the state" for releasing 800 gallons of "drilling mud" into Little Wheeling Creek. This action led to the death of about 30 minnows, crayfish and other aquatic life.
Although MarkWest officials did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this story, company spokesman Robert McHale recently said, "We remain in close contact with the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and are continuing efforts to resolve any outstanding issues. There is no higher priority for MarkWest than the safety and protection of our employees, the environment and the communities where we operate."
In the natural gas industry, there are both transmission pipelines and gathering pipelines. Transmission lines are ones that lead to, for example, an interstate pipeline to carry gas across the nation. Gathering lines carry the gas from the wellheads to a processing plant or compressor station, from which it will then go to the transmission lines.
According to West Virginia DEP spokesman Thomas Aluise, the department began regulating some of these pipelines earlier this year.
"Our Environmental Enforcement Section inspects oil and gas-related construction sites, including pipeline construction/drilling sites to make sure they are complying with their stormwater permit," he said. The Division of Water and Waste Management issues a General Permit for stormwater discharges associated with oil and gas pipeline construction. The permit requirement went into effect this past spring and only construction activities that began after the permit went into effect are regulated under the permit.
The Public Utilities Commission of Ohio states on its website that it is "ensuring natural gas pipeline safety." Agency officials note that every pipeline system in the state is inspected at least once every two years.
"When violations are detected, the PUCO orders corrective action and may assess fines and other penalties to ensure that Ohio's natural gas pipeline systems continue to deliver natural gas safely and reliably," the website states.
The PUCO also notes that it has extended regulations to Utica and Marcellus shale fields that feature both gathering pipelines and transmission pipelines.
According to the U.S. Department of Transportation's Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration, the organization is responsible for regulating "the safe and secure movement of hazardous materials to industry and consumers by all modes of transportation, including pipelines."
The agency lists on its website a series of "significant" pipeline incidents that have happened throughout West Virginia and Ohio over the past several years, including the MarkWest mishap in Wetzel County.