Wellsburg Lifts Gas Drilling Ban

WELLSBURG – Wellsburg City Councilman Ron Michaux said he was “inundated” with calls from residents who were upset that council members planned to repeal the ban against natural gas drilling.

“Why the rush to get this repealed right now?” Michaux said during the Tuesday council meeting. “There is outrage that the city appears to be being bullied into this repeal.”

Despite Michaux’s objections, he and fellow council members Mike Mitchell and Randy Fletcher were outnumbered by members Della Serevicz, Jeff Tarr, Bruce Hunter, Paul Billiard and Thomas DiSerio, as council overturned the drilling ban by a vote of 5-3.

The repeal previously passed on first reading, but the Tuesday vote removes the prohibition Wellsburg council placed against gas drillers in May. Wellsburg’s official repeal takes place after New Martinsville passed the first reading of an ordinance to repeal its ban on drilling last week. The New Martinsville repeal is up for final consideration Sept. 5.

After Wellsburg and New Martinsville voted to enact their drilling bans, gas industry officials began to fight back against what they saw as aggression against their business. Mike McCown, president of the Independent Oil and Gas Association of West Virginia, said before Wellsburg and New Martinsville voted to repeal their drilling bans, “This is ill-conceived. We do not want to do commerce in communities that do not want our business.”

Also, Chesapeake Energy officials changed their minds about providing a $30,000 gift to Wellsburg Middle School citing concerns about the ban, as the company sent the money to Follansbee Middle School, instead. At the time, Chesapeake officials said the company needed to limit its charitable contributions to areas in which it operates.

Chesapeake Coordinator of Corporate Development Amy Dugan attended the meeting, but referred all questions to Directors of Corporate Development Jacque Bland and Stacey Brodak, who could not be reached late Tuesday.

New Martinsville and Wellsburg council members previously noted they adopted the ban to ensure protection of the city’s water supply, which they said is drawn entirely from underground water wells. Wellsburg’s water comes from a well. Fletcher emphasized the concerns about the city’s water supply.

While some have expressed concerns that Marcellus Shale drilling and fracking may lead to contamination of drinking water wells, gas industry officials contend the steel and concrete casings they use in their wells prevent any such contamination.

During the meeting, Michaux questioned the idea of lifting the ban because he said additional state regulations are “delayed.”

“We are waiting for the state to do something,” he said, though pointing out that acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin directed the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection to impose some additional regulations. However, some state Legislature committees are still considering the matter to see if new Marcellus Shale drilling rules should be passed there.

Mitchell questioned the fracking process, in which drillers pump millions of gallons of water, sand and chemicals deep into the earth at high pressure to crack the shale to release the natural gas.

“I voted against rescinding it the first time,” he said. “I don’t see how you can pump that much garbage into the ground and have nothing happen.”

Council members also received a letter from resident Regina Lindsey-Lynch asking them to keep the ban in place.

“West Virginia has the added feature of many abandoned old (coal) mines that makes drilling here unique and may affect the outcome of drilling ventures, adding a different set of potential problems,” she wrote.

While Wellsburg as now completed its repeal of the drilling ban – and New Martinsville appears ready to do so – Morgantown officials seem steadfast in continuing to prohibit drilling within that city’s boundaries.