Fracked and Overwhelmed

fracking site

In 2016, 3,000 gallons of chemicals spilled at this MarkWest gas processing complex in Wetzel County, W.Va, and into a creek upstream from a public drinking water intake. Photo by John Farrell

Living in an area where hydraulic fracturing — fracking — is taking place can feel like living under an invading force, according to Bill Hughes, a longtime resident of Wetzel County, W.Va., who ended up becoming a sort of documentarian of the fracking industry as it ramped up in the county beginning around 2011.

One of the keys to understanding what’s coming, according to Hughes, is paying attention to the surveyor’s stakes that dot the sides of the roads and other areas where drilling or pipeline activity is imminent.

“Always look for them,” Hughes says of the wooden stakes with different colored strips of cloth hanging from them. “That is the Roman army’s pre-invasion marker. Stake in the dirt, guys, this is where we’re going to work on conquering next. This is our warning to you. Be on guard.”


Road damage from frequent truck traffic is common in the county. Photo by Dan Radmacher

The stress of living in a fracking region is palpable to a visitor. Even though evidence of constant patching and repairs is clear, roads are crumbling and pockmarked. The first several miles of Sistersville Pike running north out of West Union, W.Va., are a cratered mess. Potholes in the pulverized road can be several feet wide — and several feet deep. The speed limit may be 55 mph, but a driver would be foolish to drive above a moderately slow crawl.

Even though drilling activity is somewhat depressed currently due to low gas prices, industry traffic remains heavy. Convoys of tanker trucks carrying fracking chemicals or wastewater roar around narrow, curving roads. Other trucks deliver huge sandboxes to the drilling pads where the sand will be mixed with water and chemicals to help fracture shale formations 9,000 feet below the ground to release the gases long trapped within.

Still other trucks carry heavy earthmoving equipment to clear land for pipe yards and well pads or widen narrow country lanes for access to pipeline routes or drilling locations.

Large industrial facilities popping up all over hilly terrain — extraction plants, wastewater treatment plants and compressor stations — run 24/7, with constant noise, harsh lights and air pollution emissions that hang over the valleys. Freshly cut trees litter hillsides along countless right-of-ways being prepared for pipelines.

Hughes spends a lot of time driving around Wetzel County in his four-wheel-drive truck, keeping tabs on new fracking activity and tracking the progress of construction of well pads and pipelines in thousands of photographs. He plugs information into Google Earth, charting the paths of pipelines and the locations of other facilities.

Bill Hughes of Wetzel County, W.Va., keeps tabs on the expansion of fracking and related gas pipelines and facilities in his part of the state. Photo by Dan Radmacher

“The people who live here didn’t sign on for this,” says Hughes. “When we moved here from Pittsburgh 40 years ago, we didn’t sign up for this, either.”

Tina Del Prete also moved to the area about 40 years ago. She grew up in New Jersey and always wanted to live on a farm. She and her partner own 30 acres and a 100-year-old house in Doddridge County, W.Va. The Mountaineer Xpress Pipeline is going through not far from her home.

“My American dream has been turned into a living nightmare,” she says. “The gas companies treat the people who live here like we’re in the way.”

The impact from fracking is much larger than the conventional drilling that people in this part of West Virginia were so familiar with.

“When I started in the industry in the early 2000s, if someone leased their farm, the company carved out maybe a half-acre well pad with a dirt road,” says Justin Raines, a former oil and gas industry worker who is now chairman of the West Virginia Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“You’d end up with a small piece of pipe and a 50-barrel tank out in the woods,” he says. “In the modern era, when a farmer leases the farm, they pretty well lose the use of that entire farm. You’ve got a 10-to-20-acre well pad, a large frack pond, a paved road. Looking at it from an aerial view, the impacts are like a miniature mountaintop removal mine.”

Hydraulic fracturing as a drilling technique has been around for well over a century. But when it was combined with horizontal drilling techniques in the 1980s to extract natural gas trapped in shale formations, production began booming — along with the environmental footprint of natural gas operations. Fracking first took off in Texas and Oklahoma, but soon spread to other areas.

The huge Marcellus Shale Formation that lies under much of Appalachia was created 350 million to 400 million years ago during a mass extinction event when the area was a large underwater basin.

Fracking allows the natural gas that became trapped in tiny pockets as the shale formed to be economically recovered by breaking up the rock and releasing the gas. Natural gas production in Appalachia has soared in recent years as fracking has spread from Pennsylvania to West Virginia and Ohio.

According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, natural gas production in Appalachia from the Marcellus and Utica shale formations has nearly tripled since 2012, increasing from 7.8 billion cubic feet per day in 2012 to 23.8 billion cubic feet per day in 2017. An EIA article published in August 2017 forecasts that the pipeline infrastructure and other natural gas processing facilities planned for Appalachia will lead to even more production in the future.

According to Hughes, that will likely take the form of additional wells on existing pads rather than incursions into new areas, at least in the near-term. “It’s a lot less expensive to put a new well on a pad that’s already been developed,” he says.

An underground natural gas liquids storage hub proposed by Appalachian Development Group could spur $36 billion in new chemical and plastics industry investment, according to developers, and drive even more gas production.

Fracking activities are concentrated in north-central West Virginia, eastern Ohio and southwestern Pennsylvania, but some fracking is also happening in parts of Kentucky and Virginia. In New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo banned fracking in 2014. The Maryland legislature passed a ban in 2017, though the state has permitted fracked-gas pipelines originating elsewhere.

New Technique, New Problems

snowy road

Another well pad is under construction on a ridge in Wetzel County, W.Va. Photo by Dan Radmacher

Pennsylvania was the first Appalachian state to see hydraulic fracturing, and Ron Gulla saw one of the first horizontal wells go in on his farm in Washington County. The lease he signed didn’t mention horizontal drilling or the Marcellus Shale. “The whole thing was so dishonest and so corrupt, it’s just unbelievable,” he says.

Gulla has been tied up in litigation with the drilling company for years. After the water in his three-acre pond turned black and all the vegetation died, Gulla blamed the drilling for contaminating the water. Gulla ended up moving from his farm into his parents’ house.

People in Washington County were excited about fracking when it first started, according to Gulla. “A lot of people thought they hit the Powerball,” he says. “They didn’t realize that once you start drilling, now you’ve got collection lines, compressor stations, all the infrastructure that goes along with this.”

The infrastructure damage has been extensive. “It’s like a bomb went off,” he says. “They’re destroying everything around here with all the heavy truck traffic. People are not happy here now. They’ve industrialized the whole area. Some people are trying to get the hell out of here, and they can’t. Most people are sick of what’s going on. Sick of seeing all the pipelines, the drill sites, all the flooding and mudslides taking place.”

John Stolz, the director of the Center for Environmental Research and Education at Duquesne University, began researching the impact of fracking after he attended a Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection hearing about a change in regulations for discharges from public wastewater treatment plants.

“It turns out the rivers around Pittsburgh were getting saltier because there was so much drilling activity,” Stolz says. This was driving wastewater treatment plants out of compliance with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency regulations. Wastewater from fracking is highly salty, both from the salts added to the fracking fluids and the salts released from the shale when it is fractured. The salt was reacting in the river water to create trihalomethanes, a chlorine byproduct linked to some negative health effects.

Stolz met Gulla at a public hearing, cementing his interest in the impacts of fracking. “I visited him on his farm, and I haven’t looked back,” Stolz says. “They completely took over his farm.”

Stolz says he’s been “completely blown away” by the duplicity of the leasing and drilling companies. “They’ll tell you the wells last 50 years,” he says. “But we’ve got more than a decade of data. They produce most of what they’re going to produce in three to five years. In 10 years, they’ll be gone and the wells will be capped.”

Royalties are paid based on production, so fewer years of production cuts into the amount of revenue landowners receive. Gulla points out that many companies began deducting a portion of post-production expenses from royalties, further reducing the landowner’s share.

Some fracking proponents — like Sen. James Inhofe, R-Oklahoma — insist there hasn’t been a single case of water contamination from the procedure. Stolz disagrees.

“You have to dig to find out how many gag orders are out there, how many settlements there’ve been,” Stolz says. “I’ve been involved with at least three different cases settled with a gag order. The families’ kids couldn’t even talk about it.”

Attempting to prove that fracking operations contaminated a water source is complicated by the legacy of extractive industries in these areas, according to Stolz. “There were already thousands of holes in the ground before these guys started, and thousands of mines,” he says. “So when we look at the water contamination, they can try to trace it back to other sources — never mind that there wasn’t a problem prior to the new activity.”

The health impacts from fracking contamination — and from air pollution and other problems associated with the industry — aren’t totally clear, but studies showing cause for concern are beginning to accumulate, according to Stolz.

“The most recent studies show correlations to low birth weights and higher infant mortality,” says Stolz. “Industry came out with a statement questioning the study because researchers didn’t consider drug addiction, tobacco use and alcohol abuse, which, of course, the researchers had controlled for. It’s an insult.”

The studies Stolz refers to have found that infants whose mother lived within one kilometer of a well were 25 percent more likely to have low birth weights. Mothers living near fracking operations were also more likely to give birth prematurely. Another study found increased infant mortality in the five most heavily fracked counties in Pennsylvania.

Air pollution caused by fracking has also been linked to unhealthy concentrations of smog and other contaminants.

Money Talks

surveyor stakes

Surveyor stakes mark new gas infrastructure in Doddridge County, W.Va. Photo by Dan Radmacher

Not everyone who lives in fracking country is opposed, though. Dawn, a longtime Doddridge County resident who didn’t want her real name used because she fears retaliation from the industry, said that for some people, the money coming into the county makes up a bit for the disruption — but not for her.

“I don’t have mineral rights; no money there for me!” she says. She understands, though, why some people will try to profit if they can. “Some folks have decided to make lemonade out of the lemons. They set up RV parks for the man camps [temporary housing for out-of-state gas workers] or rent out rooms. People might not like what’s going on, but they don’t necessarily speak up publicly. When this started happening, lots of people thought this was just fantastic. They looked at it as a money-making proposition.”

Lissa Lucas, a candidate for the West Virginia House of Delegates from Ritchie County whose February ejection from a committee hearing on a gas bill went viral, says property rights are important even to those who are employed in the industry.

“People around here are not opposed to drilling in general, but they want to be able to control where it happens,” she says. “They want the 40 acres around their house not to have a frack pad on it.”

Lucas is concerned that, once more, political leaders are looking at easy, short-term revenue and ignoring the region’s long-term needs. “What’s frustrating to me is that we don’t seem to be taking any steps to make sure that West Virginia is a better place for the future,” she says. “Fossil fuels are a finite resource. They just are.”

Industry promises about jobs are largely empty, according to Lucas. “Companies keep saying this will bring in jobs, but the crews are from Texas and Oklahoma,” she says. The Antero Clearwater treatment plant and landfill in Doddridge County is a case in point, according to Lucas. “The frack dump wasn’t built by local people,” she says. “In a year or two, those crews will go home or on to the next job, and we’re saddled with a 500-acre toxic dump with a 30-year landfill liner.”

The Sierra Club’s Raines says the lack of economic diversification makes fighting fracking more difficult. “It’s hard for people to resist because there’s so little going on economically,” he says. “People have been conditioned to accept a certain amount of destruction in order to put food on the table.”

Like Lucas, April Keating, president of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, worries current politicians are ignoring the problems. “No one’s listening to us,” says Keating. “We’re just tree-huggers trying to get in the way of commerce. But we’re not. We just want to try something else besides extraction. Amazon and Google don’t want to come to a place that doesn’t have green energy. Tourists wouldn’t come here if they knew what they were falling into when they went rafting.”

Some places are working to stop fracking before it starts. Late last year, Westmoreland County, Va., enacted zoning regulations to strictly limit fracking. Under the new ordinance, fracking would only be allowed by special exception in planned development districts, and only after drilling companies complete applications addressing traffic and noise impacts, as well as the effects on water and county infrastructure.

Fracking in Wayne National Forest

CC-SA image by ChaseRokitt

Oil and gas drilling leases on two parcels of Southeast Ohio’s Wayne National Forest were auctioned on March 22. The 345-acre sale was the forest’s first of 2018; four auctions were held in 2017.

In February, the U.S. Forest Service announced it will revise its land-management plan for Ohio’s only national forest. This follows a lawsuit initiated by several conservation groups that challenges the leasing of Wayne National Forest land for fracking.

Public meetings for the new planning process were scheduled for late March and early April.

“The Planning Commission went into a lot of detail in order to make it as hard as possible to get a permit to drill,” county supervisor Russ Culver told the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

Yet this particular ban just applies to Westmoreland County — fracking is underway elsewhere in Virginia. And both Maryland, which has banned the drilling practice, and Virginia have permitted fracked-gas pipelines.

In Doddridge County, Dawn doesn’t really see the point of speaking up anymore. “It doesn’t matter what you do or what you say, because they’re going to do whatever they’re going to do,” she says. “You don’t get a lot of support from the local leadership in the community. They just look at the dollar signs, the tax income generated from the increase in commercial activity. Some of the people in charge have right-of-ways or leases themselves. They’re making money off of it.”

And, she fears, it may just be too late. “I think we’re past the point of no return,” she says. “The amount of soil surface disturbed, infrastructure damage, aquifer pollution, the destruction of the sense of community we used to have here … I don’t know that there’s any coming back from all of that.”

Del Prete also doesn’t see a way for the community to recover. “I don’t know what the answer is,” she says. “I don’t know if there’s any help. People come here and see what’s going on and go back to their state to fight it off. Then they forget about us.”


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  1. Dakota on May 8, 2018 at 11:36 am

    big darn

  2. e. Reid Gilbert on April 17, 2018 at 1:24 pm

    A few years ago I had a farm in WV and had a contract with the gas company for potential drilling. The first year they paid me for the lease, but then discontinued paying the next year. When I asked where my lease payment was, the reply was, “When we stop paying the lease is discontinued.” My reply was, “When I lease out an apartment, the tenant must keep paying until the lease is ended, even if they choose to leave.” I always rankle when a corporation rep says, “Our policy is . . .” They don’t seem care to hear what my policy is.

  3. Sandi Saunders on April 13, 2018 at 10:51 am

    What kills me, and makes me so darned angry is that in the end, on this and some other issues that deeply affect our daily lives, we have so little recourse, so little effect, because of the way business has structured our own government agencies and powers. FERC is a joke (only the joke is virtually always on us). The DEQ is a joke (they will crush a small business that makes a mistake and hold back the hordes for a big business to rape the land). The USACE is a joke (they will slay us and take our tax dollars to pay for it). And whether our local BOS, Council or state government actually approves of some project is pretty much a moot point (though they often just don’t bother to try). This system is broken and we have GOT to stop electing the “Drill baby drill” and “Business trumps all” politicians of we will reap their whirlwind!

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