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Council repeals natural gas drilling ban

August 20, 2011
By WARREN SCOTT - Staff writer ( , The Herald-Star

WELLSBURG - The repeal of a city ordinance prohibiting natural gas drilling in or within a mile of the city and complaints of odor arising from environmental cleanup operations near the city were among issues discussed at Wellsburg City Council's Aug. 9 meeting.

Council moved to rescind the natural gas ban by a 5-3 vote. Supporting the repeal were 1st Ward Councilman Bruce Hunter, 2nd Ward Councilman Paul T. Billiard, 3rd Ward Councilman Tom Diserio and 4th Ward Council members Jeff Tarr and Della Serevicz.

Voting against it were 1st Ward Councilman Mike Mitchell and 3rd Ward Councilman Randy Fletcher.

Supporters of the repeal have cited an executive order by Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin calling for additional regulations for natural gas drilling to be implemented by the state Division of Environmental Protection.

City Manager Mark Henne has said the state Legislature's failure to adopt such regulations led council to ban the procedure in an effort to ensure the safety of city drinking water obtained from four wells.

City officials expressed concern material from drilling operations could leak or be spilled into groundwater leading to the city's wells.

Gas drillers use a process called hydraulic fracturing, which involves blasting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals, some of them toxic, into the underground Marcellus shale to release the natural gas.

Gas industry officials say the drilling occurs thousands of feet below water tables and gas wells are heavily sealed with concrete and steel to prevent the fluid from leaking into the ground.

Opponents point to incidents in which wastewater from the process was spilled outside the wells or methane from abandoned coal mines was released, resulting in fires.

First Ward Councilman Mike Mitchell said he supports the ban "because I can't see how you can pump so much garbage into the ground without something bad coming out of it."

Third Ward Councilman Randy Fletcher said the city is investing tens of thousands of dollars to improve the wells and it will be wasted if the water becomes contaminated.

Second Ward Councilman Ron Michaux, who last month supported the repeal, said his change of heart stems from concerns that state officials are slow in carrying out the governor's order.

Michaux said he's concerned "that there's an interim period where we're going to be hanging out there without protection."

He added he's received many calls from city and Brooke County residents the city has been "bullied into" repealing its ban.

City officials had cited concerns they may be forced to defend the ban in court against natural gas drillers or residents who have leased property for drilling.

On Tuesday council received a letter from Regina Lindsey-Lynch, a rural Brooke County resident who praised council for adopting the ban.

Lindsey-Lynch included copies of news articles relating a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finding that water wells were contaminated by gas drilling in Jackson County, W.Va., and of ongoing EPA investigations of claims of contamination in Texas, Pennsylvania, North Dakota and Colorado.

In other business, council:

Was asked about odor emanating from the Buffalo Creek area at the city's south end. Kurt Paschl, a representative of Beazer East, former owner of the Follansbee Koppers plant, said the odor stems from an environmental cleanup effort by the company overseen by the U.S. EPA.

Paschl said coal tar has been dredged from the bed of the Ohio River near the Follansbee plant and taken to a Buffalo Creek dock for transport to Ohio.

He said the company has been monitoring the air quality there and not found a problem but will be installing equipment to help reduce the odor.

Paschl said he hopes the project will be completed by mid-October.

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