School Meets On Well Concerns

CAMERON – The way John Corp and Leslie Gearhart see it, the natural gas well Trans Energy will drill within 3,800 feet of Cameron High School is not a big deal.

However, Marshall County Schools Superintendent Michael Hince remains concerned about the health and safety of the students and teachers at the school, which is now in the midst of its first full year of operation.

“We’re not sure why there is so much concern. We have been working in the area for several years,” said Corp, president of St. Marys, W.Va.-based Trans Energy, noting the company participates in the Marshall County Task Force meetings regarding natural gas drilling activity.

Hince initially said his concerns involve evacuation plans in case of a fire or explosion; truck traffic during school hours that could interfere with school buses traveling on U.S. 250; and possible air pollution drifting into CHS.

Even though he remains concerned, he said Trans Energy and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection are working to diminish his worries.

Hince said he had a meeting Trans Energy officials. “We did discuss a possible evacuation plan,” he said.

During drilling and fracking, companies generally have dozens of water, sand and equipment trucks traveling to and from the well pads each day. Hince initially feared these trucks would likely be turning off U.S. 250 onto Clouston Road, which runs by the school, to reach the well site.

“We are not going to use it to reach this site,” said Gearhart, vice president of operations for Trans Energy. “Also, when school buses are traveling, we will make sure that our vehicles do not cross their paths.”

Hince believes Trans Energy can reach the planned well pad by turning off U.S. 250 onto side roads well before reaching CHS, noting, “I think they will work with us on the traffic issues.”

Although the 3,800-foot distance exceeds the 625-foot distance the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection requires wells to be located from “occupied dwellings,” Hince knows community worries remain.

The DEP does not seem to be concerned, Hince said. “You would hope they are looking out for everyone’s safety. They have to know that this is a school and that there are students there Any distance seems a little close to us, though,” he said.

This is not the first time Northern Panhandle school officials have expressed concerns about companies planning natural gas wells in close proximity to school buildings. Last year, Chesapeake Energy originally wanted to sink a well about 1,300 feet away from Wheeling Park High School on property owned by the “Parks System Trust Fund of Wheeling.” This organization’s trustees are the members of the Wheeling Park Commission, which oversees Oglebay Park.

Following public outcry, the Ohio County Board of Education filed official objections to the DEP. More than 310 people also signed an online petition to stop the well. Chesapeake officials eventually withdrew the permit application, noting they would retrieve the gas via another well pad.

However, WPHS houses nearly 2,000 students and employees each day for grades 9-12. By comparison, CHS has about 350 students in grades 7-12.

“In an ideal situation, would I want it there? No. But you have to make the best of the situation,” Hince said. “Landowners have leased their mineral rights, and the company wants to drill.”

Situated in the southeastern corner of Marshall County with about 1,000 residents, Cameron is at the heart of the shale gas play. Cameron Mayor Julie Beresford and Delegate David Evans, R-Marshall, recently expressed similar concerns, noting they are seeking help from the West Virginia Division of Highways regarding road conditions and traffic.

“We have not been in any conversations with Trans Energy regarding this,” said Beresford about the planned well near the high school. “We would certainly want to protect the health of the children.”

Emphasizing the company’s St. Marys’ headquarters – as opposed to the larger natural gas producers such as Chesapeake Energy, Chevron, Gastar Exploration, Stone Energy, Magnum Hunter and others, most of which maintain headquarters in southern states – Gearhart said Trans Energy wants to “work with the community.”

“This is months away from now,” she said of the well’s construction timetable. “If the school wants us to have a public forum to address concerns, we will do that when we prepare to move forward.”