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Water In Appalachia Needs a Trillion Dollar Solution

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This is the first of a two-part series on water infrastructure in Appalachia, and possible solutions to problems at the federal and local level.

The Problem

What West Virginia faces when it comes to its streams and rivers is a historically entangled knot of cultural pride, politics and industrial interests, Angie Rosser, the executive director at West Virginia Rivers, told me in a phone interview. The organization has been dedicated to monitoring and fighting for the water quality in West Virginia for over 30 years.

The same extractive and chemical industries that bring much-needed jobs and investment into this historically under-employed and over-exploited region also often carry with them environmental risks that materialize into illness and pollution, the causes of which are not only hard to fix, but often difficult to detect, or prove liability of in court.

The United Nations recognizes access to water and sanitation as one of our basic human rights. Yet there are places in Appalachia where that right is being indirectly infringed upon as a result of these extractive industries. Areas across Appalachia facing the most chronic water-safety threats include Martin County, Kentucky and Bladen County in North Carolina, where tap water in some communities can come out discolored and fetid — if it comes out at all.

The most infamous cases include the pollution of the mid-Ohio River Valley in West Virginia and Ohio, which houses a DuPont company factory that dumped an industrial chemical called C8, used to produce Teflon, contaminating the local water supply. The chemical has been connected to heart disease, birth defects and cancer.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

In recent years, the Environmental Working Group — or EWG — a non-profit based in Washington, D.C., published a report that demonstrated a decades-long lack of enforcement on the part of the regulators and revealed that the agency’s “safety levels” might be misaligned to the real-world environmental damage they cause, meaning that in light of the latest research the levels once deemed safe may, in fact, be harmful.

April Keating, co-founder of Mountain Lakes Preservation Alliance, named south Upshur County, Doddridge County and her own area of the city of Buckhannon and the Buckhannon River as just couple of examples in West Virginia where she’s actively involved in remedying the effects of pollution from extractive industries, during her interview with 100 Days contributing reporter Emily Pelland.

Another case study is the Elk River spill of 2014 that affected over 300,000 people in nine West Virginia counties. At the time of the spill people, in the affected area were told to avoid coming into contact with the contaminated water and were banned from running their taps at home. The initial state of emergency issued by then-West Virginia Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin included advisory “NOT to ingest, cook, bathe, wash or boil water. Water in this coverage area (Boone, Cabell, Clay, Jackson, Kanawha, Lincoln, Logan, Putnam, and Roane counties) is okayed ONLY for flushing and fire protection.”

As these events unfolded, National Geographic published an article that revealed the lack of full understanding across the scientific community of the health impacts of the spill and unwillingness of the government to share the little that was known.

But even when dangerous contaminant levels are clearly identified, there is still the matter of difficulty in proving the liability to extractive industries for health problems among populations living close to their facilities.

Keating pointed to “what they (the industry) call nonpoint source pollution. You know it came from somewhere … you can’t pinpoint it exactly, and that’s what the industries are depending upon — because they know that you cannot go into court and definitively prove where it (the pollution) came from even though you live next door to that compressor station or you live next door to that separation plant.”

Water In Appalachia Needs a Trillion Dollar Solution from 100 Days on Vimeo.

The problem with water doesn’t start with pollutants and end with infrastructure. In between there is the way, in which the drinking water quality is being defined and how the results are being presented to the public — a complicated regulatory dance between protecting Appalachia’s water and protecting Appalachia’s industry. Meanwhile, flexibility in enforcement of standards can be subtle and varies by state.

To help draw attention to this complicated balance, EWG created a national Tap Water Database that makes it possible to research every zip code in America and check the water quality. In order to account for these gaps in regulatory legislation, the EWG decided to follow Public Health Goals. Originally from California, these more-strict safe drinking water standards provide safety levels for many more chemicals than the EPA’s regulations.

“The main thing is we don’t know what we don’t know, and there are thousands upon thousands of chemicals that are part of production processes that we don’t know enough about,” Rosser told me.

Keating pointed to over “750 chemicals that are used in fracking, many of which are carcinogens and endocrine disruptors and the heavy metals that come out of the earth.”

But even with proper research and monitoring, the challenges to water quality and infrastructure in West Virginia and Appalachia are many. Rosser pointed to heavy pollution from the extractive industries, a severe lack of sewage infrastructure in some areas — leading to “stray pipes” dumping raw sewage into the rivers, populating them with dangerous bacteria — and the chemical industry with its own brand of pollutants.

EWG’s Alex Formuzis explained that many of the Environmental Protection Agency’s drinking water standards that follow the Safe Drinking Water Act haven’t been updated in years.

The decades-long lag in the EPA updating the list of dangerous contaminants has resulted in a paradoxical situation, where a utility company could deliver contaminated water to its clients and yet still technically be in compliance with the EPA standards.

That very fact is an important factor when trying to understand the gap between what the data shows as utilities in compliance with the federal regulations, and then the health problems found disproportionately often among populations in certain areas, particularly in places rich in extractive or chemical and heavy industries.

I reached out to the EPA to comment on that claim. The agency responded by outlining a fairly complicated process of of reviewing and introducing new contaminants under the Safe Drinking Water Act. Here’s part of it: “The EPA must publish a list of contaminants that are known or anticipated to occur in public water systems and are not currently subject to EPA drinking water regulations every five years, EPA publishes draft CCLs (Contaminant Candidate Lists) for public comment and considers those prior to issuing final lists or regulatory determinations.”

The EPA’s official also stated that: “The Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) requires EPA to review each national primary drinking water regulation at least once every six years and revise them, if appropriate. … EPA most recent Six-Year Review evaluated thousands of peer reviewed studies and millions of data points from drinking water treatment systems and was published in January 2017. The results of that review identified rules EPA can evaluate whether to modify to strengthen public health protection in future years. This review ensures that existing rules are offering the maximum public health benefit feasible.”

On its face, that appears to be a lot of active effort to keep those lists updated. EWG sees it differently. According to the group, despite the process being in place, it has failed to produce any new and substantive regulation. The 2008 EWG’s report stated that “the track record of the CCL program raises many reasons for concern, because in twelve years of this program’s existence, EPA has not developed drinking water standards for even a single chemical listed in the CCL.”

In an article, this time from 2016, EWG once again pointed to the EPA’s inability to “exercise its authority to protect public health from previously unregulated contaminants.”

The last Regulatory Determination for CLL 3, published in January of 2016, didn’t add any new chemicals to the list and postponed its final determination on one (strontium). The Regulatory Determination for CLL 4 is due in 2021. EWG recognizes some of the chemicals on the CLL 4 list (1,4-Dioxane; 1,2,3-trichloropropane, cyanotoxins, manganese, PFOA, PFOS, nitrosamines, pesticides, and hormones/endocrine disruptors) as potential risks to human health.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

“Since 1996, EPA has been stuck in an endless loop of reviews, seemingly unable to set new standards for numerous contaminants found in drinking water. And without federal regulations, these contaminants continue to threaten the health of many millions of Americans,” author of the previously mentioned report and EWG’s senior science adviser, Olga Naidenko, told 100 Days in an email.

Here are some contamination issues of several zip codes across Appalachia we selected from the Environmental Working Group’s database. We chose to list results for both small and major water utilities.

Although our selection focused exclusively on Appalachian counties, the general pattern that emerged for the Appalachian states as a whole showed that in the case of nine of them (New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Maryland, West Virginia, Ohio, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia) the utility companies with the highest number of violations were the ones serving the smallest communities, while for the remaining fours states (Kentucky, Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama) the same was true, but instead for medium sized communities.

Let’s take a closer look at one example. Oneida Water and Sewer Comm. in Tennessee serves over 11,000 consumers. In the last three years, that specific water utility remained in “significant violation of federal drinking water standards” for the total of nine quarters, and from October 2014 to September 2017 it spent the total of 12 quarters with “violations of federal drinking standards.” The pollutants found in the water that exceeded health standards came from industry, agriculture or were treatment byproducts. All of the chemicals found were above the health guidelines, but below the national guidelines, are known to be related to cancer.

The rest of our selection can be found here.


The Fix

The people of Appalachia tend to value self reliance and, for the most part, manage to avoid the lure of outsiders promising false hopes. Many have accepted the price of living in an environment characterized by extreme costs, whether to their health or their surroundings, and extreme pay offs — to this day working in a mine remains among the highest paying jobs in the region. Rosser described it as a “fatalistic sense of place.”

She has met and talked to people who were outraged over the water infrastructure and water quality, but also exhausted and sick because of those very problems. ”I have stray sewage around me, but even me, working in this field, I try to put it ‘out of sight, out of mind.’ … because I don’t know what to do about it,” she said.

Mountainous populations are often spread out, making it harder to organize and muster mass movement around issues like this, even if they do affect one’s everyday life. Priorities come to a head when basic, immediate needs and more idealistic, long term issues are pitted against each other.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise then that the “Infrastructure Initiativeannounced by the White House in February turned a lot of heads. The water infrastructure element occupies a prominent position within the proposal.

From flood management to waste water treatment facilities, the projects are supposed to be bolstered by the initiative in both direct funding and incentives for private industry to step up.

The $200 billion proposal is estimated by the White House to generate over $1.5 trillion of investment in American infrastructure. $50 billion of the entire federal pot of money is supposed to be funneled into rural America.

Water quality and infrastructure problems across Appalachia, particularly in the states with robust extractive industries and economies often based on boom-bust cycles, like West Virginia, Eastern Kentucky or Pennsylvania, are often intertwined with poverty.

“What I’ve seen and noticed and heard from others is that when you’re in a heavily mined community, you look around and there’s no other jobs, certainly no that pay $60,000 and upwards. … There are communities where water well becomes contaminated but then the company comes in and builds infrastructure for public water system,” Rossier told me.

Keating’s comments echoed that sentiment: “when you’re talking to regular people, it’s about jobs for them … When you’re talking to county commissions it’s about tax revenue … And when you have over 50 percent of the population living … at or below the poverty level, then you have an issue with people’s well-being that isn’t being addressed by the industries that they’re able to get jobs in.”

“So what happens in poor communities is that we were so focused on job creation that we’ll take anything that’s handed to us. We’ve been an extraction colony for over 150 years. It started with railroads and timber and then it went to coal and then it became gas.”

Some in Washington, D.C., including West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin, question the likelihood of the proposal coming through. “We’re not seeing any money put into it … When you have $1.5 trillion of additional debt because of the tax cut, makes it hard to do anything, so we’re fighting and trying to make sure they’ll be able to (do it). I’ve got water and sewer needs, all over a very challenging terrain,” the senator told me during our brief conversation in late April.

The money dedicated to water infrastructure, and in the infrastructure proposal overall, is meant to encourage investment, meaning the $1.5 trillion is a projection, not hard cash that’s secured for rural America or Appalachia.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

Out of the entire sum, the $50 billion would go to the Rural Infrastructure Program that would include all investments. Here’s how the funds from that pot would be distributed:

  • 80 percent of the funds under the Rural Infrastructure Program would be provided to the governor of each state via formula distribution. The governors, in consultation with a designated federal agency and state directors of rural development, would have discretion to choose individual investments to respond to the unique rural needs of their states.
  • 20 percent of the funds under the Rural Infrastructure Program would be reserved for rural performance grants within eligible asset classes and according to specified criteria.
    • Funds made available to states under this program would be distributed as block grants to be used for infrastructure projects in rural areas with populations of less than 50,000.The Rural Infrastructure Program outlines the following way of determining how rural any given state is:
      Distribution of Rural Infrastructure Program Formula Funds
      The statute would create a “rural formula,” calculated based on rural lane miles and rural population adjusted to reflect policy objectives. Each State would receive no less than a specified statutory minimum and no more than a specified statutory maximum of the Rural Infrastructure Program formula funds, automatically. (p.6-7)

According to the proposal, states could also apply for the Rural Performance grants for specific projects within two years from the enactment of the infrastructure proposal. Grants would be available for up to ten years, or until the funds run dry.

Graphics by Shayla Klein.

Asked about his take on the private industry picking up the tab, Sen. Manchin said that, in his view, private industry is good for more urbanized areas, but that “in rural America … there’s not enough market. If somebody wants to come in and when they do, they will take the lion share and not make it any easier at all for people who live there.”

Rosser shared a similar view: “there’s no incentive unless they (private companies) are heavily subsidized.”

April Keating and others we talked to think the proposal’s language is a code for more leaniacy towards big businesses.

And that’s an important point to keep in mind. The administration’s proposal pushes for more engagement on the part of private industry by easing the permitting process, extending tax exemptions, or lessening the oversight, while at the same time arguing for benefits for the citizens and disregarding rampant environmental and health dangers.

Here are some examples we highlighted of language found in the actual document outlining the infrastructure initiative.

Asked about its position on the funding related to water infrastructure in the President’s Infrastructure Initiative, an EPA official who wanted to remain unnamed admitted that the agency is not familiar with its specifics.

Although the funding itself for the initiative seems to be in question, it is worrisome that the agency that could be involved — in different capacities — with many of the projects looking to receive money from the proposal is not familiar with its details.

Issues involving the EPA range from extending permits’ legibility from five years under the Clean Water Act to 15 years to, in some cases, allowing for automatic renewals to providing tax incentives to invite private investments in water infrastructure such as sewage facilities, solid waste disposal facilities or in environmental remediation costs on Brownfield and Superfund sites.

While political pressures first influence the shape of laws, it’s also the political appointments at the level of the Cabinet Secretary of the Governor that lead the enforcement by West Virginia’s State Department of Environmental Protection.

Another piece of the puzzle is the failure to keep people and companies accountable.

Keating told 100 Days that the mining companies often struggle with the disposal of waste, and use methods that are controversial to say the least. “Now they’re talking about spraying it on roads. The brine itself that comes out of the earth is ten times saltier than seawater. And so even the brine without the chemicals would kill anything.”

Appalachian communities tend to show a lot of mistrust towards government regulations, just as they show mistrust to the very industries that have been the economic backbone of the region. Rosser thinks that missing trust is a big part of the problem, but the current politics don’t make it any easier for people to change their minds.

For example, on April 23 West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice issued his third executive order expediting permitting procedures for businesses, following two that rolled back and halted industry regulations. He also put a moratorium on new regulation and set up an expedited process for permit approvals for certain projects.

“Political forces and benefits to industry do get favor, sometimes over the science or what’s in public interest in terms of environmental protection and health protection,” Rosser said.

The recent “Almost Heaven” ad campaign was designed to promote tourism in West Virginia. Yet, Rosser said that “when you travel in West Virginia, water is everywhere and some pollution is invisible. It looks good. It looks pretty … We don’t know what’s in the water,” she pointed out. Ironically, a majority of the video ad showcases pristine-looking streams and creeks.

But water infrastructure investment could be a part of something much broader than providing essential services.

According to professor of geography Martina Angela Caretta of West Virginia University, “If there was a concerted effort … to put more money into restoring infrastructure, restoring rivers and really pushing this restoration economy, would actually be a big push towards transitioning of the economy of Appalachia.”

Prof. Caretta believes there is a workforce ready to take on those jobs, as well as plenty of grassroots organizing happening around the state. We will take a closer look at those individuals and organizations ready and willing to take on economic and environmental challenges.

 


This is the first of a two-part series. Part two of this article profiles individuals and groups across the region that focus on solving problems diagnosed here.

Writing and reporting: Jan Pytalski
Editing: Lovey Cooper, Colleen Good
Infographics: Shayla Klein
Additional reporting and videography: Emily Pelland

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Feds Allow Atlantic Coast Pipeline Construction to Resume

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Federal regulators gave the Atlantic Coast Pipeline the green light to restart construction Monday.

The Federal Energy Regulatory Commission halted construction of the 600-mile pipeline last month after a federal court threw out two of the project’s federal permits.

In early August, the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) needed to revisit a key endangered species permit. It also ruled the National Park Service (NPS) needed to reissue a right-of-way approval to allow the pipeline to pass under the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Until those were completed, FERC told pipeline officials most construction should stop.

Then, in a letter sent to Atlantic Coast Pipeline officials on Sept. 17, agency staff said both permits had been received and construction could resume.

“On September 11, 2018, the FWS issued a revised Biological Opinion (BO), which included a modified Incidental Take Statement, for the ACP and [Supply Header Project],” wrote Terry Turpin, director of FERC’s Office of Energy Projects.  “Additionally, on September 14, 2018, the NPS issued a new right-of-way permit for crossing the Blue Ridge Parkway. Construction activities along project areas which had previously received a notice to proceed may now continue.”

ACP spokesperson Aaron Ruby said in an emailed statement that pipeline developers are “pleased” construction can move ahead and will closely monitor the wet weather conditions before resuming work.

“We commend the Fish & Wildlife Service and National Park Service for promptly addressing the issues raised by the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals and FERC’s Stop Work Order,” he stated. “The agencies have reaffirmed that the project does not threaten any federally protected species and is consistent with the public use of the Blue Ridge Parkway.”

Environmental groups have repeatedly challenged the pipeline, arguing it’s not needed and will harm water and other natural resources across its route in West Virginia, Virginia and North Carolina.

“Rather than taking the time to address the major problems we have seen in federal agencies’ reviews of the Atlantic Coast Pipeline, these agencies continue to rush through a rubberstamp process that ignores legal requirements – not to mention the public interest,” said D.J. Gerken, a senior attorney with the Southern Environmetnal Law Center, in a statement.

FERC’s decision to life the stop work order on the ACP follows the agency’s decision to allow the Mountain Valley Pipeline to resume the bulk of its construction despite having not yet gotten new federal permits as required by the federal court.

In that case, agency staff wrote order to “mitigate further environmental impacts” construction along rights-of-way could resume, except on federal lands.

This story was originally published by West Virginia Public Broadcasting.

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Orphan Wells: States Wrestle With Soaring Costs For Oil & Gas Industry Mess

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William Suan is no stranger to the problems abandoned oil and gas wells can cause.

“It’s just an eyesore,” he said, standing inside a barn on his cattle ranch near Lost Creek, West Virginia. “I had to fence one off because it’s leaking now.”

There are five inactive wells on his land, most installed in the ’60s and ’70s, and the companies that owned the wells have long since gone out of business.

On a recent rainy Monday, Suan treks down a muddy hill on the backside of his property. Hidden in the wooded thicket is a three-foot-tall rusted tube jutting out of the ground.

A soft bubbling sound emanates from the well.

An “orphan” well on William Suan’s property leaks decades after being abandoned. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“See the gas bubbling out of it?” he said. “Sometimes there’s oil. There’s where they had one of those pads to soak up the oil last time I complained about it.”

In 2012, Suan won a case against the West Virginia of Environmental Protection to get one of the wells on his property plugged. Since then, he says he has been unsuccessful in getting environmental regulators to take additional action.

Having enough resources to plug old, inactive wells is a challenge not unique to West Virginia. Across the country, many state regulators have few resources to deal with an ever expanding list of abandoned wells.

Abandoned gas works on William Suan’s property in West Virginia. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

“The states are pretty good at regulating wells that are being explored, are being fracked, are in production, but they kind of lose interest once that happens,” said Alan Krupnick, a senior fellow with the nonpartisan environmental think tank, Resources For the Future. “There’s not enough attention being paid to reducing the risk from these abandoned wells.”

Across the Ohio Valley, thousands of oil and gas wells sit idle. An analysis of state data by the Ohio Valley ReSource estimates more than 8,000 oil and gas wells are considered “orphan.” Definitions of orphan and abandoned wells vary by state, but in general, orphan wells lack an operator or company that can pay to plug them. That responsibility then falls to state regulators who are frequently struggling to keep up with demand and scrambling to find money to clean up the mess.

But there are steps states can take to help. Recent legislation passed in Ohio and West Virginia funnels more money toward plugging orphan wells. The new laws address the problem in two very different ways.

 

 

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

Inadequate Bonds

In Kentucky and West Virginia, agencies tasked with plugging those wells rely on forfeited bonds. That money is collected in a fund and used to plug the highest priority wells.

Well plugging can be an expensive undertaking. Across the Ohio Valley, regulators reported figures as low as a few thousand to upwards of $200,000 to plug a single well.

Abandoned wells, like this one in Kentucky, can pollute for years. Photo: Kentucky Division of Oil and Gas

“We may have an emergency repair on a big well and we may have had bonds forfeited on several small wells and those funds just don’t add up,” said Lanny Brannock, a spokesperson with the Kentucky Energy and Environment Cabinet. “So, we’re constantly behind on funding for orphan wells.”

Since 2012, Kentucky has plugged 33 wells and has about $950,000 in an orphan well fund.

West Virginia’s funding situation is similar. Since 2012, the state has plugged seven wells. The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection can use a portion of each $150 well work permit application fee as well as any forfeited bonds to plug orphan wells. Currently, the fund holds approximately $385,000.

Recent legislation passed in Ohio and West Virginia funnels more money toward orphan wells. The new laws address the problem in two very different ways.

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

West Virginia’s Fix

In West Virginia, the 2018 “co-tenancy” law, which governs oil and drilling on properties owned by multiple people, includes a provision with the potential to funnel millions of dollars into the state’s orphan well fund.

The law states that if at least 75 percent of landowners agree to lease a tract of land for oil and drilling, a company can drill. Any royalties earned by mineral owners who cannot be located will be set aside for 7 years. If unclaimed, those funds are transferred to the orphan well fund.

“We’ve been looking for years for a way to find the money or require the industry to pay better bonds in order get these wells plugged and keep more wells from being orphaned,” said Dave McMahon, a lawyer and co-founder of the West Virginia Surface Owners Rights Organization, which proposed the idea to lawmakers.

A portion of the money is currently slated to fund West Virginia’s struggling Public Employee Insurance Agency, or PEIA.

“Hopefully, we can use this source of money as one way to try and plug as many of these orphan wells as we can,” McMahon said, but added, “It’s hard to know if we’ll ever get the job done because there are so many of them and there are going to be so many more of them and it costs so much to plug them.”

The West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection declined to make someone available to talk about its orphan well program.

In an email, spokesperson Jake Glance said, “Our understanding is that certain provisions in the co-tenancy bill will eventually direct additional funds into this account.”

While the new legislative fix is helpful, experts say the orphan problem will only get worse because West Virginia and other states do not require drillers to pay adequate bonds.

Deep Problems

A 2016 study of inactive well regulations in 22 states by Resources for the Future, a nonprofit advocacy group, found the majority lack policies to deal with legacy wells drilled decades ago and the means to collect sufficient funds to plug wells currently being drilled.

“We want good policy to make sure that these wells when they’re eventually abandoned do not present environmental risk” Krupnick said. “One thing is they could raise the bonding amounts to the point where they’re covering the costs of these wells, of decommissioning the wells.”

He said another challenge is that many states allow wells to remain in “idle status” for years. These wells aren’t producing, but operators aren’t being required to plug them.

Unplugged wells can leak oil and other pollutants into water or the ground and inactive wells can emit methane, a powerful greenhouse gas many times more potent than carbon dioxide.

Graphic: Alexandra Konik/Ohio Valley ReSource

A 2016 study of abandoned wells in Pennsylvania found the state’s 475,000 to 700,000 abandoned wells are leaking an estimated 50,000 metric tons of methane per year, or about 5 to 8 percent of the state’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

Experts say the problem will only get worse. The region’s fracking boom is adding many more wells that tap the gas deep in the Marcellus shale. The lifespan of a fracking well is shorter than a conventional well. According to McMahon, pressure from Marcellus drilling is also likely to force some conventional drillers out of business.

“Their bonds aren’t going to be enough and the number of orphan wells is going to go up and up as time goes on,” he said.

In 2011, West Virginia overhauled its bonding requirements for horizontal wells. The 2011 Horizontal Well Act requires drillers to pay $50,000 for single well bonds and $250,000 for blanket bonds.

Companies in good standing can get blanket bonds to cover all wells they own. McMahon argues that even that level of bonding may not be enough to prevent orphan wells.

“That blanket bond is enough to plug five wells and some of these drillers own hundreds of wells,” he said.

Ohio’s Approach

On a forested knoll in Carroll County, Ohio, backhoes and bobcats zip around. Nearby, a crew of three men is running 2-inch metal pipe hundreds of feet down into an old well that was built before World War II.

Gene Chini manages the orphan well program for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources division of oil and gas resources. The wells being plugged here have been on the agency’s radar for awhile.

“The records that we had said this well was the best in Carroll County,” he said

Ohio has taken a different approach to plugging orphan wells. In 1977, the state created an orphan well plugging program. From the beginning it has been funded with 14 percent of the oil and gas fund, which is supported by a modest severance tax on natural gas extraction.

Gene Chini says there may be thousands of abandoned wells in his state. Photo: Brittany Patterson/Ohio Valley ReSource

Later this month, a new law will raise the percentage of the fund that must be directed toward orphan wells to 30 percent.

Soon, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Division of Oil and Gas Resourceshopes to be plugging many more wells.

“Four to five years ago the budget was less than a million dollars,” said Steve Irwin, spokesperson for the division. “This past fiscal year we spent $6 million and we will have over $20 million to spend this year to plug orphan wells.”

In addition to the percentage boost, severance taxes are up significantly because of the fracking boom in Ohio.

The division is facing some challenges ramping up the program. There are just 737 orphan wells on the agency’s list, but officials said an estimated 250,000 wells have been drilled in Ohio. They expect the true count of orphan wells to be much higher.

It can also be a time-intensive process to plug old wells. In the case of the five wells being plugged in Carroll County, Chini said none had gone according to plan.

“It’s not just pull in, pump some stuff down a hole and then leave, it just doesn’t work that way,” he said.

The standard way of plugging a well involves first clearing out all of the tubing and casing inside. Then cement or another strong substance is poured in to create a combination of deep and shallow plugs to ensure oil and gas cannot escape or travel into the groundwater.

The state is also struggling to find companies to plug wells. Chini said when conventional oil and gas business dropped off in the 1990s, many companies left Ohio.

Still, he recognizes with a boost in funding tied to severance taxes, Ohio is in a better place than some.

“It really is a win win for everybody,” he said. “The money’s coming back to them in the form of work. It’s the operators that pay the severance tax and so it’s the operators that are plugging the wells.”

On The Horizon

Back in West Virginia, Suan said he was glad to hear about the new provision that puts more money toward plugging orphan wells. But he fears without higher bond amounts, or enforcing the laws to make oil and gas operators plug wells in a timely manner, the problem may never go away.

The region’s fracking boom is adding many more wells that tap the gas deep in the Marcellus shale.

“I can’t imagine if they can’t even plug these little wells what they’re going to do with the Marcellus wells that needs plugging,” he said.

This story was originally published by the Ohio Valley ReSource.

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