Michael McCawley continues letting West Virginia lawmakers know that carcinogenic air pollutants from Marcellus Shale drilling pose a serious threat in the Northern Panhandle.
McCawley, chairman of the Department of Occupational & Environmental Health Sciences in the School of Public Health at West Virginia University, testified last week before the state Legislature's Joint Standing Committee on the Judiciary. He discussed a series of studies he helped prepare for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
One of these studies measured levels of cancer-causing benzene in the air 625 feet away from one Wetzel County site, which were so bad that McCawley said he would recommend "respiratory protection" for those in the area. Current West Virginia law requires wells be drilled at least 625 feet away from an "occupied dwelling," but McCawley emphasized that air pollution can move.
Air emissions from natural gas drilling operations continue to be a point of contention, as a West Virginia University professor continues the push for monitoring at well sites.
"It is not a good assumption that everything comes from the center of a well pad," he said. "Air pollution can spread easily. It does not necessarily matter how far away the well is."
Although the extreme levels of benzene lasted for only about three hours at the Wetzel County site, McCawley said the readings show that air emissions from Marcellus and Utica shale drilling need more regulation. However, instead of focusing on how far a well is from people, he said the DEP should be monitoring the air quality.
"They said they would discuss it in conference. I hope they are willing to make some changes," McCawley said regarding his conversation with legislators.
In multiple legal advertisements during the past few years, natural gas producers have confirmed the "potential to discharge" various amounts of materials into the air on an annual basis from the operations at the natural gas wells and compressor stations. Those materials include benzene, carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulfur dioxide, methane, carbon dioxide equivalent, xylenes, toluene and formaldehyde.
McCawley studied the air near seven wells throughout the state, including five in Wetzel County, one in Brooke County and one in Marion County. Each well was in a different stage of development at the time he monitored them from July through October 2012.
He said benzene was the primary constituent that he found at the sites, though he does not believe all of this came from the well itself.
In terms of the immediate hazards for those living in the vicinity of natural gas wells, McCawley said there is cause for concern. However, he said the Legislature does not have to change any rules to protect public health because he believes the DEP already has all the authority it needs.
The DEP study determines the agency already has the "regulatory framework" to reduce air emissions from drilling. McCawley would like to see this put into action.
McCawley also said air pollution can flow from natural gas pipelines, noting this can create even more problems because there is no such requirement that pipelines be built 625 feet from homes.