About 100 people angry over proposed natural gas wells along the Monongahela River and near Morgantown, W.Va.'s drinking water treatment plant contend state regulators aren't up to the job of properly overseeing the industry and preventing air and water contamination.
The gathering Wednesday in front of the Monongalia County Courthouse was the first significant protest in West Virginia over the rapidly growing exploration of the Marcellus shale field, a vast, mile-deep natural gas reserve underlying much of Appalachia.
Although many residents were concerned about the industry in general, the protest was prompted by the recent discovery that Charleston-based Northeast Natural Energy plans to sink wells in the Morgantown Industrial Park, about 1,500 feet from a drinking water intake.
Protesters were angry they had no input before the permit was approved, and they questioned the Department of Environmental Protection's ability to regulate effectively.
Northeast vice president Brett Loflin said the company understands the community's concerns and is committed to environmentally sound operations. It followed the DEP's rules in obtaining permits for two wells, he said, "with the potential for two to four more."
"We understand the importance of doing this right, and we take our responsibility to protect the environment very seriously," Loflin said.
DEP Secretary Randy Huffman, meanwhile, said his agency is working with Northeast and the Morgantown Utility Board on more stringent requirements to address residents' concerns.
"There's a good chance we'll be modifying the permit," he said.
State law has never had a public notice requirement for gas well permitting, and until legislators address the issue, "it's not the public policy of the state," Huffman said. Although he wouldn't oppose such a process, Huffman noted he currently lacks the authority to require a public hearing if a driller refused.
Huffman also defended his agency and noted it spent the better part of 2010 trying to develop a solid package of drilling regulations for lawmakers to consider. The last session ended without an agreement.
"We have made no bones about our need for more resources," he said, adding that the number of inspectors would depend on the pace of drilling.
"If I ever felt that our ability to keep up and on the ground was being outpaced by the activity that was going on, I would have the need to take more drastic action," he said. "I don't believe that's the case now."
Morgantown resident John Barnes grew up in neighboring Pennsylvania, where drilling is in overdrive, and said he's seen farmland destroyed and fish killed by the industry and the pollution it creates.
"This well over here is just the beginning," he warned the crowd. "Wells are being ruined. People are getting sick. People are dying.
"Pennsylvania has been run over roughshod," he said, and if Morgantown wants to avoid the same fate, "you better hurry."
To reach the gas deposits, companies use horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing or "fracking" technologies, in which millions of gallons of chemical-laden water are blasted underground to break up the rock and release the gas.
The drilling industry insists its operations are well managed and mindful of the environment, but the protesters' signs signaled their concern about tainted water.
"Don't frack with Morgantown," warned the sign carried by 25-year-old law student Rachel Livengood.
"Water is more valuable than money," read one hoisted by 64-year-old Susan Musick
And Jim Sconyers, chairman of the Sierra Club of West Virginia, held one joking, "Spill Baby Spill."
"We want drilling to stop right now, today, and we want laws put in place immediately that protect the rights of the people of West Virginia," said organizer Sandra Fallon. "We are under attack, really. Our town is under attack by these well drillers."
Delegate Barbara Fleischauer was among those demanding that acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin convene a special session to resolve the issue now. The DEP has just 15 inspectors to oversee some 59,000 oil and gas wells, the Monongalia County Democrat said, and it needs legislation that funds the salaries of more inspectors.
The agency, she said, "is in serious denial" about its ability to properly regulate.
But Huffman called Fleischauer's figures "an out of context, irrelevant comparison of two numbers."
The state doesn't need to regularly inspect most of the 59,000 wells, he said. Once the drilling and reclamation are complete, the DEP might never need to visit a site again.
"Almost all of the inspectors' time is spent on the wells as they're being developed," he said.
Joining Fleischauer was fellow Democratic Delegate Charlene Marshall and the Mountain Party candidate for governor, Bob Henry Baber. But most in the crowd were students, retirees and other residents worried about their quality of life.
Margaret Collins, a retired schoolteacher who raises horses on 63 acres and has gas wells over the hill, now worries daily about the heavy trucks that barrel down the roads and endanger other drivers.
Collins had a well drilled so she'd have a steady supply of fresh water for her animals, "and now every time I fill their buckets I think, Am I poisoning my horses?"