Delegate amendment calls for study of ‘actual effects’ of drilling activity
The environmental impacts of drilling for natural gas.
State Journal | Taylor Kuykendall
December 16, 2011
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In the process of crafting regulations for drilling in the state's recently discovered Marcellus shale reserves, one member of the House of Delegates added a provision for studying setback distances that could revolutionize how drilling operations are sited.
Del. Woody Ireland, R-Ritchie, successfully proposed an amendment to the governor's bill regulating horizontal drilling during the special session. The amendment called for a study on utilizing actual impact measurements over "arbitrary" measurements such as distance. Ireland calls for the study of use of noise, light, dust and volatile organic compound exposure in determining setback distances for wells.
"My intention here is to set limits on those things that are truly important to people," Ireland told House Judiciary members when he proposed the amendment. "Whether a well is a thousand feet away or 25 feet away doesn't really make much difference if the noise levels are too high or volatile chemical levels are too high. Those are the things that really affect people's lives."
The bill asks the Department of Environmental Protection to study and possibly propose rules for setting requirements on residents near drilling operations in regard to noise, light, dust and volatile organic compounds.
Ireland's scientific approach to measuring the effects of drilling reflects his background. The delegate was a chemical engineer with more than 30 years experience at Dupont.
"The things that industry is generally concerned about is not distances, but actual pollution levels," Ireland said.
Ireland said the amendment was initially a difficult sell to lawmakers who easily identified with measurements of distance, but found lumens, decibels and total suspended solids measurements more daunting.
"It's sometimes difficult to get people to say, ‘yeah, maybe that does make sense,'" Ireland said. "The key, I think, to getting that accepted is that we didn't try to set hard and fast limits, we said, ‘Okay DEP, study this thing and then come back with some proposals that we can then try to set hard and fast limits.'"
Ireland said it was premature to set the limits in the rushed special session, but a study would be appropriate. He said there were several "intense" discussions involving the amendment prior to the bill, but ultimately, he said it was supported "across the aisles," and "across the halls."
One of the elements of the study provided by Ireland's amendment is a measure of noise experienced by those in proximity of the well. Instead of an "arbitrary" measure of distance, limits on the noise produced by an operation would be restricted.
"If I was concerned about noise, if you were to put a well fairly close and then you put in or use sound deadening technology … then why should I care if it was 100 feet or 1,000 feet away?" Ireland said.
Surface owners frequently complain about the noise generated by the large horizontal drilling operations, which can take months to complete.
According to a Colorado study of noise at natural gas operations, even hundreds of feet away some activities of natural gas drilling operation, can be as loud 62 to 68 dBA, a measure of decibels adjusted to human hearing called "A-weighted sound level."
According to the Powder River Basin Resource Council, "Depending on the wind direction, the roar of a field compressor can be heard three to four miles from the site. Near the compressor stations, people need to shout to make themselves heard over the sound of the engines."
Average conversation at a distance of three to five feet typically registers at about 60 to 70 decibels. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration limits eight-hour sustained exposures of over 90 decibels.
According to Earthworks Action, many residential and rural neighborhoods have environmental sounds of less than 35 decibels, so a noise restriction of 45 decibels would still mean a roughly double the perception of noise levels.
For roughly every increase of 10 decibels, loudness doubles.
A study by World Bank found that depending on existing environmental noise conditions, a limit of about 45 dBA is recommended.
Effects of excess of noise levels have been linked to variety of health issues ranging from sleeplessness to hearing loss.
Light pollution is another concern with the booming gas industry, a movement some have called the "industrialization of West Virginia." In rural areas accustomed to the dark, the brightly lit operations can present new problems for an area that has historically remained incredibly dark after sundown. Workers at night need the light to safely operate, but nearby residents are not as accustomed to having to shut their blinds and face the additional lights typically associated with urban settings.
In addition to human activity, light pollution can affect wildlife and livestock whose natural day and night rhythms may be interrupted by nighttime operation of Marcellus shale drilling in West Virginia.
"Lights are required for safety on the rig and at the operation during construction and, to some extent, at the finished well, disturbing natural light and causing glare into the night sky," states a fact sheet from the Delaware Riverkeeper on natural gas drilling. "Light pollution can confuse wildlife, including migrating birds, and has human health impacts by disturbing sleep."
Light intensity is measured in lumens. The Lighting Research Center of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York says light pollution is a blanket term for things such as "sky glow," "light trespass" and glare.
"Sky glow is a brightening of the sky caused by both natural and human-made factors," the group's website explains. "The key factor of sky glow that contributes to light pollution is outdoor lighting."
Light trespass is light that is cast where it is not needed and glare is "objectionable brightness."
"The sudden bright light can be uncomfortable and make it difficult to see. Discomfort and even disability glare can also be caused by streetlights, parking lot lights, floodlights, signs, sports field lighting, and decorative and landscape lights."
Dust pollution, caused by the earth-moving activity of natural gas well operations is another factor to be considered by the DEP in the study commissioned by Ireland's amendment.
"Dust can cause or aggravate nuisances such as hay fever and allergies; stunt the growth of vegetation; and lead to decreased visibility," the Earthworks website states. Leveling land, transportation vehicles and other elements of horizontal well construction can kick up dust, polluting the surrounding air.
Several studies have linked health problems related to dust exposed to the air due to road traffic, an environmental concern affected by industrial and residential traffic, farming and other sources.
Various measures for suppressing dust pollution are available.
Volatile organic compounds
Ireland's amendment to the governor's horizontal drilling legislation also calls for the DEP to look at the possibility of needing rules establishing limits on volatile organic compound exposure.
"In the chemistry industry we were always concerned about volatile organic chemicals and suspended solids in the air, basically dust," he said. "It's not new to me or new to the industry, really."
VOCs are carbon-containing substances that easily evaporate into the atmosphere.
"They can combine with nitrogen oxides to form ground-level ozone, which can cause respiratory ailments such as asthma, and decreased lung function," Earthjustice writes. "Examples of VOCs are benzene and toluene."
According to a website operated by Chesapeake Energy, VOC emission from well completions can be reduced with cautionary methods.
"Chesapeake utilizes a voluntary procedure called reduced emissions completions, or "green completions," to control or reduce VOC emissions. A reduced emission completion can eliminate most of the VOC emissions and recover valuable natural gas during flowback and well testing."
Chesapeake further explains that not every well is equipped for reduced emission completion because of the special equipment and other special precautions required.
"VOCs may be emitted from storage tanks that vent to the atmosphere," the Chesapeake website explains. "Each state has rules that determine allowable VOC emissions, permitting requirements and emissions thresholds at which equipment, such as a flare or other emissions control device like a vapor recovery unit (VRU), must be used. When technically and economically feasible, Chesapeake prefers to control VOC emissions with a VRU in order to reduce emissions and recover valuable natural gas."
Ireland said both surface owners and industry would benefit from the alternative metrics for determining setback distances.
"It makes sense from a public standpoint to address the kinds of things they are concerned about," Ireland said. "It also makes sense from an industry standpoint because it then gives them the flexibility to manage those things based on their situation."
Ireland said, for example, in populated areas where setbacks would "sanitize" a considerable amount of acres for drilling, that flexibility would allow drills to be located closer with the use of pollution-mitigating technologies.
While implementation faces numerous hurdles, including complex modeling requirements and levels of pollution that frequently vary, Ireland said he foresees many of those complexities being resolved by the study.
"I don't think it's a stretch to say that kind of technology, modeling technology will be available," Ireland said. " … I'm confident that the DEP can take a look at the sort of thing and set reasonable limits that would protect the public and give industry the flexibility they needed to do what they need to do."