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A group critical of West Virginia's new emergency rules for Marcellus shale gas drilling said Tuesday the rules take only baby steps to protect the environment and do nothing to help landowners.
The Department of Environmental Protection issued the rules Monday at the urging of Acting Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin, who had called for interim measures until legislators can agree on permanent and wider-ranging regulations for the fast-growing industry. The rules will remain in place for 15 months once approved by the Secretary of State.
But the West Virginia Surface Owners' Rights Organizations says they largely mirror what the previous administration was doing in practice and allow huge regulatory gaps to continue unaddressed.
"They are inadequate to ensure safe, responsible development of the Marcellus shale," said spokeswoman Julie Archer, "and more needs to be done to protect citizens and the environment."
Gas companies can still sneak onto private property to survey well sites and roads without contacting the owners first, and landowners get no notice of plans to drill until the permit is filed, the group complains. Even then, they have only 15 days to object, with no right to a public hearing.
People who live in rural areas, outside a municipality, would still be blindsided by operators, the group says, and wells could still be drilled within 200 feet of homes. Many residents worry not only about noise, lights, road damage and air pollution, but also the potential for fires and explosions.
The only significant improvement in the rules, the group contends, is the requirement that an engineer design any well pad of more than 3 acres.
Tomblin acknowledged there's work to be done on surface owners' rights. Although the DEP "sets the stage" for more comprehensive action, he ticked off his own list of issues that still must be covered, from forced pooling and mineral rights to road damage and responsibility for repairs.
Some issues require statutory changes, Tomblin said, "and that's why I'd like to see an agreement reached as quickly as possible, so all players on all sides know exactly what the rules are."
Lawmakers have struggled to find common ground on how to best regulate the rush on the rich natural gas reserves underlying much of West Virginia. A special House-Senate committee held hearings around the northern half of the state this summer but now can't even agree when to meet.
Tomblin said he favors a special session to tackle this issue this year, rather than waiting until the regular session in January.
"I think there's a great deal of concern around the state on exactly what the rules are," he said.
Environmental groups have also bashed the emergency rules as inadequate, noting they fail to address air pollution, fail to create a revenue source for more inspectors and fail to treat drill cuttings and other material as hazardous wastes.
Eighteen environmental groups are demanding lawmakers act soon, adding protections for areas with porous limestone geology, and for parks and other public lands. They also demand a standard for total dissolved solids in water, and tougher well testing and bonding requirements.
They say the DEP should stop issuing permits until strict, comprehensive rules are in place.
Those groups also complain the DEP hasn't created a cradle-to-grave system for monitoring the large volumes to water required to hydraulically fracture the deep, horizontally drilled wells.
The emergency rules require operators to file water management plans when using more than 210,000 gallons, citing the source and anticipated volume of withdrawals, as well as measures to protect aquatic life. The companies also must list their "anticipated additives" and say how they plan to dispose of wastewater.
Though the rules require them to record the quantity of flowback water, they don't require operators to report that data to the state. The surface owners' group says that means DEP and the public will be missing information that could shape future decisions.
Jim Sconyers of the West Virginia Sierra Club says the lack of accountability also allows unscrupulous operators to illegally dump wastewater in streams or anyplace else they think they can get away with it.
Associated Press Writer Lawrence Messina contributed from Charleston.