WHEELING - When GreenHunter Water opens its planned frack water recycling facility in Warwood later this year, up to 23,000 barrels of possibly contaminated and toxic water and related materials will be mere yards from the Ohio River - and about 1 mile upstream from the city's water plant.
Following this month's Freedom Industries spill in the Elk River in Kanawha County that left about 300,000 West Virginians without water for days, many local officials are looking with increased concern at the GreenHunter project. The Freedom Industries location was about 1.5 miles upstream from West Virginia American Water's intake.
In that spill, an estimated 7,500 gallons of a chemical known as 4-methylcyclohexane methanol - used as a frothing agent for coal, and about which not much is known - entered the Elk River and contaminated the water system for residents in nine counties.
Photo by Casey Junkins
Tom Connelly, assistant director of the Wheeling Economic and Community Development Department, reviews the site plan for GreenHunter Water’s planned natural gas frack water recycling plant in Warwood.
Locally, the fracking wastewater that will be stored at GreenHunter - the company estimates 30 trucks a day will deliver to the site - could contain chemicals such as arsenic, barium, bromides and radium, among others, some of which produce low levels of radioactivity. GreenHunter Vice President of Business Development John Jack insists the company will exercise caution to prevent any type of spill.
The problem local officials have is that no state or federal agency appears to be in charge of monitoring liquid storage facilities such as GreenHunter - the same issue those in Charleston have found with Freedom Industries.
Oversight for above-ground liquid storage facilities
One thing that's been learned since the Freedom Industries spill is what's known as "chemical storage facilities" have little to no oversight from either the state or federal government. GreenHunter Water likely would fall into this category, as no chemical production or manufacturing would take place through their process.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency doesn't regulate aboveground chemical storage for many industries, and the West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection has said they would only regulate the facility if it drilled into the earth or discharged a pollutant into the air or the Ohio River.
Jack did say the West Virginia DEP would do a "walk-through" inspection of the plant once it is up and running.
"As long as they are not drilling - and are not going to discharge anything into the air or into the water - they don't need any permit from us," former DEP spokeswoman Kathy Cosco said in July. "Companies come up with new technologies all the time. Until the plant is running, we don't know what they are going to be doing."
Current DEP spokesman Thomas Aluise referred further questions to Scott Mandirola, director of the West Virginia Division of Water and Waste Management. He did not immediately return calls seeking comment.
Some in Charleston are not waiting to make changes to how such facilities are regulated. State Senate Majority Leader John Unger, D-Berkeley, introduced a bill last week that would authorize the DEP to register and inspect all above-ground liquid storage facilities.
"This will protect the water in regards to any kind of chemicals or other types of liquids that could end up in our water resources," Unger said. "We want to ensure that every West Virginia resident has access to clean drinking water and that as lawmakers, we are doing everything possible to safeguard the safety of our water resources."
The Elk River spill also is provoking action in the U.S. Senate. The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, chaired by Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., is investigating the spill and has planned two hearings to explore how similar situations can be prevented.
"We need to make sure that we identify dangerous chemicals and are making progress on chemical reforms," Boxer said.
Just what chemicals will be stored at the GreenHunter site also is a point of contention. As with the Freedom Industries chemical, MCHM, no one seems to really know enough about what will be in the wastewater stored by GreenHunter.
"What are they planning to store? What are the planning to send back out?" said Ohio County Health Department Administrator Howard Gamble regarding GreenHunter.
Gamble and Ohio County Emergency Management Agency Director Lou Vargo hoped to discuss this with GreenHunter officials at a scheduled meeting last Thursday, but Gamble said the meeting was canceled due to one of the company's representatives falling ill.
"Since this is an informational session, we will reschedule the meeting," Gamble said. "We actually were scheduled to have this meeting before the Charleston event."
GreenHunter's provisions for a leak
According to the GreenHunter site plan provided by Tom Connelly, assistant director of the Wheeling Economic and Community Development Department, the company plans to construct 23 separate 1,000-barrel tanks on the 2.35-acre site at the former Seidler's Oil Service on North 28th Street in Warwood. Some of these tanks will hold clean rainwater, while others will hold reusable fracking water, drilling waste fluid and flowback water, the plans show.
The site will feature a dike that is slightly more than 2 feet high to prevent any spill from leaving the area, while there also will be surface drains leading to underground storage tanks.
Jack has said the company's spill containment design meets U.S. EPA standards. He said the water the plant will be handling is far less toxic than the petroleum, hydrochloric acid and other chemicals shipped daily on the Ohio River.
The city of Wheeling has given approval to the company's site plan, and the project is moving forward. Still, Connelly, Gamble and Vargo are not sure what chemicals may soon be on-site.
"We decided that once this becomes more of a reality, we would meet with them to go over their emergency plans," said Vargo, noting he met informally with GreenHunter representatives last year in Wheeling City Manager Robert Herron's office. "I look forward to working with them. The more we hear from them, the better we will be able to plan."
Connelly also noted that Wheeling's building inspectors would review GreenHunter's tank construction plans to make sure they meet proper standards before installation.
Neither Jack nor Jonathan Hoopes, GreenHunter's interim CEO and president, could be reached for further comment.