EMA Director Calls For Better Well Info

WHEELING – As the natural gas industry continues to transform the area, West Virginia still doesn’t know enough about who is responsible for all the state’s wells and the growing maze of pipelines snaking through its hills, according to its top emergency management official.

“It’s almost impossible, when we get a call … to be able to figure out who these things belong to,” West Virginia Homeland Security and Emergency Management Director Jimmy Gianato told area natural gas industry representatives as the West Virginia Oil and Natural Gas Association’s inaugural ShaleSafe Conference and Expo concluded Wednesday at Oglebay Park.

He recalled a situation not long ago when it took several hours to identify the owner of a gas well where an incident had taken place. More than 20 different entities had operated it at one point or another, he said, and the latest information proved to be outdated.

“We have to build that system so our first responders know where to go,” Gianato said.

According to Gianato, the state is working on a new initiative, the Homeland Security Information Network, which he hopes will increase communication between his office, first responders and the private sector.

Such a flow of information was lacking, he said, following the Jan. 9 Freedom Industries chemical leak, which resulted in more than 10,000 gallons of 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, or MCHM, flowing into the Elk River near Charleston and impacting the water supply of about 300,000 people served by West Virginia American Water. A reliable test to detect the presence of MCHM had to be developed on the fly, and there was no information readily available as to acceptable levels of the chemical in drinking water, forcing state officials to collaborate with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to come up with a standard.

Although tests continue to show the water is safe, he said his office continues to investigate complaints almost daily – and he sees no end in sight.

“We anticipate it’s going to go on for many months before the confidence in the water system builds,” Gianato said.

The aftermath of the Freedom Industries incident was unlike anything he’d seen before, Gianato said, with more than 40 million liters of water delivered to the area. He said it was impossible to find a drop of potable liquid – even beer and liquor – on store shelves in Charleston that day, and police were out in force to handle the resulting chaos.

“You need to be prepared to take care of yourselves for at least 72 hours, but people won’t do that,” Gianato said.

Gianato said one of the first questions his agency asked West Virginia American Water was why the company didn’t simply shut off the intake when it learned of the leak at Freedom Industries. Their response, he said, was that had they done so, the system would have run out of water within hours, and it would have taken two to three weeks to get it running again – meaning two to three weeks without sanitation or fire protection for the nine-county area affected.

“Losing the system entirely was worse than having (MCHM) in the system. … In their mind, it became the lesser of two evils,” Gianato said. “I’ve lost count of the number of lawsuits that already have been filed against the water company, against Freedom Industries and against the state on the response side.”

As a result of the crisis, the Legislature spent much of its time during this year’s session crafting new regulations for storage tanks. Companies will now operate under more stringent regulations concerning inspections, emergency planning and reporting.

The law goes into effect June 6, and Gianato said there’s plenty of work ahead to ensure a smooth transition. The challenge for his office, he said, will be in providing utilities such as water companies with the information they need about chemicals being used in their area without violating federal law against divulging “proprietary information” – trade secrets, in other words.

“It’s going to impact this industry and just about every other industry that has storage tanks. … Exactly how it’s going to be implemented is not yet known,” Gianato said.