CAMERON - When Cameron High School students and employees returned to classes on Aug. 1, they may not have realized a natural gas well could soon be drilled just up the hill from campus.
According to Marshall County Schools Superintendent Michael Hince and Cameron Assistant Principal Wyatt O'Neil, Trans Energy plans to drill and frack near the school, which just opened for its first regular school year under its modified calendar schedule.
"I don't want to overreact, but I don't want to underreact either," said Hince. "I am concerned about the exit strategy. We need to see some sort of an evacuation plan."
Photo by Casey Junkins
Marshall County Schools Superintendent Michael Hince and Cameron High School Assistant Principal Wyatt O’Neil are concerned about a natural gas well being drilled near the new school.
O'Neil said he believes the well site is roughly 1/2 mile, or 2,640 feet, from the school, which would exceed the 625-foot distance the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection requires wells to be from "occupied dwellings." Nevertheless, concerns regarding potential accidents at the well site remain for Hince and O'Neil.
"What if there is some sort of an explosion? Does that mean we have to stop air flow into our building?" Hince wondered. "I don't know if having it there will be detrimental to the school itself, but the real concern is if something should happen."
St. Marys, W.Va.-based Trans Energy officials did not return calls seeking comment Wednesday. DEP records show Trans Energy is seeking a permit to drill a well in the Cameron District of Marshall County on property in the name of Woodruff.
"We've never had any problems with them," Marshall County Office of Emergency Management Assistant Director Michael Mucheck said of Trans Energy. "They regularly attend our energy task force meetings. They quickly responded to some road issues we notified them about."
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 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 with 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.
WPHS houses nearly 2,000 ninth through 12th grade students and employees each day; by comparison, CHS has only about 350 students in seventh through 12th grades.
"Strength in numbers," said O'Neil regarding the objections that prompted Chesapeake to abandon plans to drill near WPHS. "It will be harder to stop something like this out here."
Hince said he has not yet spoken with anyone from Trans Energy regarding the plans, but he will keep trying to do so.
O'Neil said even without an accident at the well site, its presence is likely to cause frustrations for students and teachers. He said related truck traffic - which could include dozens of water, sand and equipment trucks daily - likely will be turning off U.S. 250 onto Clouston Road, which runs past the school.
"The geography is the problem out here. The traffic from the gas and oil companies is changing everything," he said. "We used to ride bikes on the road, but I wouldn't do it now."
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.
O'Neil said he is glad to see new development in the area and is happy to see mineral owners collect lease and royalty payments. Still, he said Cameron "is just not the same place" it was when he was a high school student a little more than a decade ago.
The drilling boom "is an adjustment for all of us," he said.