The Department of Environmental Protection is creating a report for the Legislature that details whether regulations for horizontal gas wells are sufficient.

The Horizontal Well Control Act passed in a special legislative session in 2011 specifies that the center of a well pad must be 625 feet from occupied structures. It also states that  the Department of Environmental Protection has to notify the Legislature whether further regulation of air pollution from well sites is needed, taking into account possible impacts to human health and the environment


In an effort to comply, the agency reached out to Michael McCawley.


McCawley is the interim chairman of the Department of Occupational and Environmental Health from the School of Public Health at WVU. He and his colleagues at WVU were already working with the Department of Energy to come up with tools companies could use to sample air quality for themselves.


“I was tasked under contact to DOE to finding off-the-shelf components that could be assembled together and used in remote locations that the drill sites are at,” McCawley says.


In addition to reporting levels of dust and carcinogenic chemicals emitted, McCawley’s team is also documenting noise pollution.


McCawley says that at about 15-thousand-dollars each, this will be an affordable tool for companies and state agencies to monitor operations.


“We think that this mobile kind of sampling tool that we’ve developed with off-the-shelf units can be useful for a company to set up on a fence line so that they can show the community, in fact, that they are doing the right thing—that they’re keeping control of their process. I think that will help everybody, the industry and the population, get along better because knowledge will dispel any fears that a company’s not doing the right thing. And it also levels the playing field for the companies who are doing the right things.”


The project began in July and will continue through September—a three month window during which his team needs to monitor the various stages of drilling.


“We want to look at the clearing—where they’re clearing the pad, taking down the trees, moving around the dirt—as you do any soil movement that’s going to create dust. Then, vertical and horizontal drilling that will take place, the fracking and the back-flow that goes on in the site. Each one of those processes is going to be separately sampled by the equipment. They may not be all done at the same site.”


The samplers will detect dust generated during well-fracking processes and from truck traffic. They will also monitor gasses released in the drilling and flow-back processes, as well as emissions from the various diesel engines required to operate such sites.


McCawley says the technology used to sample air quality isn’t new. Portability is. Current air monitors require steady sources of power, so he and his team put units together that use solar panels and batteries, in addition to wireless transmitters that can broadcast data remotely, around the clock.


Despite the fact that these monitors are portable, it’s still a task to get them to locations where good data can be collected.


“The equipment is heavy. The marine batteries weigh about eighty or ninety pounds, so we’re lugging these up the mountain-side to get them in place. The solar panels are thirty pounds each and we’ve got two solar panels at each site, two batteries at each site. Then the sampling equipment itself sits on a pole that’s been dug three feet into the ground and the pole extends another six feet above ground because we want to be at least six feet off the surface which is the normal sampling height that EPA likes to look at.”


McCawley says the primary challenge is finding suitable well pad sites. They can’t be in wooded areas, for example, because trees interfere by catching a lot of dust and gas, skewing the picture of what’s being released into the atmosphere.


There’s also the issue of actually placing the samplers within the 625-foot radius. McCawley says frequently sites are cut into the side of a hill, limiting where monitors can be set. Ideally there will be four units at each of the three or four sites they plan to monitor in addition to a larger Department of Energy trailer located off site


“What we’re trying to do is get an up-wind and a down-wind position around the drilling pad. That tells us what’s coming onto the site and what’s leaving the site. So there can be surrounding contamination from other things going on. For example, if there are trucks running up and down the highway near the site they can be contributing to the particulates of the organics. And then we want to find at least one or two cross-wind locations.”


McCawley also says the monitors are only looking at horizontal well pad sites. Gas processing locations are not part of the study.


While the air quality data is gathered, the DEP is also working with others at WVU to study water quality and impoundment construction, again, to answer questions asked in the Horizontal Well Control Act.