WHEELING - Larry and Jana Rine believe Chesapeake Energy may have dumped radioactive elements into a Wetzel County waste pit, but company attorneys said the material occurs naturally in the soil.
U.S. District Judge Frederick P. Stamp heard roughly seven hours of testimony in the Rines' civil suit against Chesapeake on Thursday before deciding to continue hearing from witnesses at 9 a.m. today at the federal courthouse in Wheeling. The Rines want to stop Chesapeake from removing dirt in a pit on their property in the Silver Hill area of Wetzel County so they can gather evidence to show radioactive materials were dumped in the pit.
If such evidence is found, they want Chesapeake to perform a more thorough cleanup of their land. But Chesapeake officials say they need to remove the material as part of a slip repair job.
Last week, Stamp granted a temporary restraining order against Chesapeake to keep company workers from removing the potential evidence of their alleged illegal dumpings. Stamp did not make a ruling on whether to end or extend the restraining order Thursday because Chesapeake attorneys still had an additional witness to call to testify, requiring the proceedings to continue today.
One of the major claims the Rines make against Chesapeake is that the Oklahoma City-based driller dumped benzene and radioactive material into a large hole on the Rines' property. According to the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, benzene is a carcinogen that can also affect bone marrow and blood production over prolonged periods of time. The organization notes even brief exposure to high levels of benzene can lead to "drowsiness, dizziness, unconsciousness, and death."
The Rines are represented by Lewisburg, W.Va.-based attorney Joe Lovett. Chesapeake is represented by Charleston attorney Timothy M. Miller. The Rines believe Chesapeake is trying to remove "hazardous waste" from the pit on their land, but officials with the drilling company say they are just working to repair a slip.
"Why does Chesapeake think it has the right to do what it's doing? We have not seen the documents," he said.
Lovett said a 2010 soil sample from the site showed Chesapeake had radioactive material in the soil, adding, "We do not believe Chesapeake has a permit to dispose of radioactive material in pits."
However, Miller said small portions of radioactive elements can occur naturally in the soil, noting, "The question is, "Is it a tsome dangerous level?'"
Later, when questioning environmental consultant Ernest Franz - who traveled from Louisiana to testify on Chesapeake's behalf - Miller noted Chesapeake has been taking drilling waste to the Short Creek Landfill on North Fork Road near Wheeling for some time. Franz said a set of alarms on the sides of the landfill's entrance will sound if the truck contains radioactive material, noting no truckloads of Chesapeake waste have been turned away from the landfill for this reason.
Additionally, Morgantown-based RSK Engineering engineer Scott Krabill told Stamp he did not understand why Chesapeake needed to move so much earth to repair a slip.
"Ninety percent of what Chesapeake removed did not need to be removed," he said.
Next, Marc Glass of Cira Consulting Associates in Morgantown testified about finding high levels of hydrocarbons in the soil. When Miller asked Glass if he was aware that gas in this area is "wet" with materials like propane, butane, pentane and ethane, Glass admitted, "I am not an expert in Marcellus Shale."
One substance found in the soil sample was of particular interest to Glass, though, as he MTBE would probably not be there naturally.
"In everything that I have read, MTBE is specifically associated with unleaded motor fuel," he said.
Later testifying for Chesapeake, company construction foreman Ashley Cowan said the firm needs to repair the slip as soon as possible.
"The pit has been open since last Tuesday, and we've had a substantial amount of rain," he said. "You have to fix the slip - you have to remove the cuttings."