Home news Residents say that natural gas production is Marring West Virginia. And the...

Residents say that natural gas production is Marring West Virginia. And the legislature does nothing about it. – ProPublica

West Virginia Delegate Terri Sypolt says she understands how natural gas drilling has changed the look and feel of communities in the state, increasing the influx of noisy truck traffic and truck construction.

"I'm thinking of a neighbor's dog singing for two years," said Sypolt, a Preston County republican in the northern part of the state.

So when she returned to Charleston for this year's legislative session, she introduced a law to check the air and noise around drilling operations for the third consecutive year, hoping that her colleague's action would be taken to help residents help out.

The bill did not appear on a committee agenda, let alone on the floor of the House of Representatives.

While natural gas pours around the Marcellus shale, local residents continue to bear the burden of the growth of the industry. Many live with constant light, truck traffic, dust and noise from gas production fueled by horizontal drilling and hydraulic breaking, or fracking, as the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica recorded last year. The corporate groups and the coal association of the state have argued in court files that the inconvenience is inevitable.

With days that remain in the legislature, supporters of reform have essentially given up. The deadline has passed before the bills initially clear the house, and lawmakers and groups who have insisted on protection for residents have moved on to other issues.

Delegate Barbara Fleischauer, a Democrat from Monongalia County, in the northern part of the state, sponsored legislation this year to increase the distance between drills and homes. But even at the beginning of the session, she had little chance of success and said she now focuses on legislation that would protect women against discrimination and unequal pay.

Her bill would increase the "limit of disturbance" of a drilling operation from 625 feet to 1,500 feet of a house, meaning that people would be further away from noise, dust and light. It would also oblige drilling companies to set up real-time monitoring and to compensate landowners for possible property depreciation.

She has been introducing similar accounts since 2015, but they have never left the House of Delegates Energy Committee.

"You are the first to ask me about it," she told a reporter in January.

Deputy Mike Pushkin, a democrat from Kanawha County, sponsored legislation to protect owners of surfaces from 2015 to 2017, but this year he wasn't bothered.

"I'm more of a kind of bill that I think I can get support and that I can succeed," he said. "I feel like the current climate of the legislature – sometimes those of us who descend on property rights and descend on the protection of the environment, the air, the water, the land – we often find ourselves today playing self-defense. & # 39 ;

The passivity is not what was promised in 2011, then the government at the time. Earl Ray Tomblin has signed the Natural Well Horizontal Well Horizontal Act. The law included a variety of new environmental protection standards, but it postponed a number of important protections for residents until mandatory studies of these issues were completed by the Department of Environmental Protection and the University of West Virginia.

Those studies were completed in May 2013 and recommended increased security controls, including a more severe relapse or buffer zone measured from the edge of boreholes to houses, and building a fence or planting trees to contain "problematic" noise levels. Lawmakers have never acted on the basis of those recommendations under Democratic or Republican leadership. Under the current governor, Jim Justice, the Department of Environmental Protection revoked a rule that would have protected residents from some noise and light.

Downstream Strategies, an environmental consultancy based on Morgantown, conducted its own investigation in 2017 into the effects of natural gas drilling and extraction.

According to the report, well-pads, which are open spaces where horizontal natural gas sources are drilled into the earth, grew from 1.6 hectares on average to 2.4 hectares between 2007 and 2014. At that time, the land area was covered with pits and the accumulations of waste water grew from 12 hectares to 1,286 hectares. The solution, the group argued, was to demand buffer zones between drills and sensitive areas, such as schools and public land.

Evan Hansen, a Democrat from Monongalia County, co-author of the study, was elected to a seat in the House of Representatives last year. During this session, he co-sponsored Sypolt & # 39; s bill to implement the DEP and WVU study advice, expressing an interest in applying the best science.

"I don't think anyone in the industry wants to harm people, so that's it," Hansen said. "I think they want to be good neighbors. Moreover, I think there is less chance of litigation costs and delays due to litigation."

But Delegate Bill Anderson, who chairs the House Energy Committee and sets the agenda, said there is no "appetite" for the bills.

"Well, they're not as high on my priority list as some other bills," said Anderson, a Wood County republican.

Anderson said he remembers visiting communities affected by Marcellus Shale drills in 2011. He wanted a 1-meter distance between pits and houses, the legislator said, but in the end he decided a distance of 625 feet between the center of the toad and a house, that remains the law.

"I don't think the industry is insensitive to the needs of the people in the community," he said, "but people in the community need to understand the needs of the industry if we see the benefits in terms of jobs."

The state's oil and natural gas industry employed approximately 12,000 people in drilling and extraction jobs in 2017, according to WorkForce West Virginia, a department of the state's Department of Commerce. The Oil and Natural Gas Association in West Virginia, the Independent Oil and Gas Association and the DEP have not responded to requests for comments for this story.

During this legislative session, the Anderson Commission accompanied the accounts that he co-sponsored and that are favored by oil and gas organizations because they make it easier and cheaper to drill. One would enable companies to drill horizontal deep wells close together. Another would remove the departure tax on low-producing oil and gas sources. The bills have fallen from the Anderson Commission and are now being considered by other committees.

In November, House Speaker Roger Hanshaw said he thought the DEP might be best equipped to incorporate the recommendations of the 2013 investigations into the regulatory process.

"Protecting property rights of owners is important and we need to review these rules from time to time to ensure that they still meet both current industrial practices and the current needs of the owner of the surface and home owner," said Hanshaw , a gas industry attorney and republican from Clay County, whose conflicts of interest were described by the Gazette-Mail and ProPublica last fall.

Those decisions, he said, could be made by the DEP. But the DEP did not act and recommended in 2013 that the legislature take action.

Even if the legislature refuses to act, there are signs that the courts do not want to be involved either – saying that it is the responsibility of the legislator.

In January, the West Virginia Supreme Court heard arguments from a lawyer representing four families living in Harrison County and saying that they are constantly dealing with light, noise, and traffic problems from the drill of Marcellus Shale from Antero Resources. The lawyer argued that a jury should determine whether this type of malfunction was perceived as a nuisance, although lower courts had rejected the case.

In response, Justice Evan Jenkins asked why the case belonged to the court and not to lawmakers.

"Why would this really not be a problem for the legislature to tackle, rather than a jury issue about a given nuisance claim to decide what is reasonable or not?" He said.

The court has not yet decided, and oral arguments in a related case are scheduled for March 12.

Citizen groups said they now also have other priorities. The Surface Owners & Rights Organization, which strongly insisted on carrying out the studies, has shifted the focus to retrieving the DEP to clean up abandoned pits, says Dave McMahon, co-founder of the group. A lobbyist from the West Virginia Farm Bureau said it would support the legislation, but it also has other priorities.

"If you have a well next to your house that goes 24/7 and you can't sleep in your own house, that's ridiculous, it shouldn't happen," said Tom Huber, president of the West Virginia Owners' Association. Yet, he said, the bill was not such a high priority as a bill to reform the way property is distributed among heirs.

Not following recommendations is not new, said Angie Rosser, executive director of the West Virginia Rivers Coalition. The legislature routinely blocks its decision-making, saying it needs more information, she said. And then, when legislators receive that information, they often refuse to act, putting citizens at risk.

That's not only frustrating, she said, it's dangerous.

"There is no explanation I can come up with as to why these study recommendations have just been there, apart from a complete political paralysis when it comes to doing something that could affect the industry's opposition," Rosser said.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail and ProPublica want to tell the story of the changing landscape in West Virginia, and how coal and natural gas affect it. West Virginians: tell us how your community changes. Call or text us at 347-244-2134 or email us: changingwv@wvgazettemail.com.

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