- Grove City, Pennsylvania

December 7, 2012

Activists, industry at odds on flaring safety

DEP rep: State doesn't monitor air around wells

By Monica Pryts/Staff Writer
Allied News

BUTLER COUNTY — The gas company that owns the exploratory well in Worth Township, Butler County, says the ongoing flaring process is safe while a nonprofit environmental group says it's creating dangerous pollutants.

"The well completion process, which includes flaring, is one of the largest bursts of cancer-causing air pollution emitted from the shale gas industry," Matt Walker, community outreach director for the Philadelphia-based Clean Air Council, said by email.

Kimberly Windon, a spokesperson with Shell Exploration & Production Co., LP of Warrendale, which is leasing farmland owned by the Drake family on West Liberty Road, said there are no dangers or risks associated with flaring, which is routine and involves natural gas emissions being burned off to help determine whether there's potential for Marcellus Shale resources under the drill site.

The flaring stage at that location has been going on for about a month and could last up to another two months, she said.

The activity has brought on at least one complaint from the DeSuta family, which lives near the Drakes. Heather DeSuta has said she was so alarmed by a strong smell of gas coming from the well in early October that she contacted Shell, the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection and the Environmental Protection Agency.

Shell told her a tank had a leak, DEP said there was no leak and EPA didn't respond, leaving her and her husband David confused, especially since they weren't sure if they were supposed to smell anything.

Gary Clark, DEP spokesperson, told Allied News the flaring created the odor, which might have noticeable to the DeSutas if there was little to no wind.

Flaring is an effective emissions control for many industries because it burns off nearly all hydrocarbons and volatile organic compounds, Clark said by email.

DEP does not monitor the air around the wells being flared, he said, adding the methane gas inside the well has to be released and the safest way is to burn it off.

"We would enforce that flaring is being used the way the permit conditions require," Clark said.

Clark said regulations for the state's oil and gas programs say that burning of gas into the atmosphere from a well is prohibited if it produces a hazard to public health and safety.

Watchdogs like the Clean Air Council claim the well completion process releases the largest amount of volatile organic compounds in any part of the drilling process and can cause the greatest health impacts on residents who live near such wells.

Many of those compounds are known carcinogens that have been linked to "devastating" neurological and developmental issues, brain, liver and kidney damage and other health problems affecting the eyes, nose and throat and causing headaches and nausea, Walker said.

That's true for traditional gas well drilling and hydraulic fracturing, or "fracking," the drilling method used to break up gas and oil reserves, Walker noted.

A study done by the University of Colorado's School of Public Health found that residents living within a half-mile of a gas well were more likely to have cancer and non-cancer health impacts than people who lived further away, he said.

Pollution is produced any time a fuel burns and even the diesel engines used to drill, frack and move massive amounts of water and other fluids from well sites emit "many tons" of harmful pollutants including nitrogen oxides, volatile organic compounds and methane, Walker said.

Those emissions "bake" in sunlight and form ground-level ozone, the main ingredient of smog, which can destroy crops and vegetation and cause serious health problems.

"Ground-level ozone is particularly damaging to children, the elderly and people with pre-existing health issues," Walker said.

It can trigger problems including chest pain, coughing, throat irritation and congestion, can worsen respiratory conditions and permanently burn and scar lung tissue.

Silica dust used to prop open cracks in shale deposits have been known to cause silicosis, a type of lung disease, and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said exposure to airborne silica is a health hazard for workers at the fracking sites, he said.

Natural gas is made mostly of methane, which is 72 times more potent than carbon dioxide over a 20-year time frame, meaning it will have a significant impact on climate change.

Studies estimate 3.6 to 7.9 percent of the methane from shale production escapes to the atmosphere in venting and leaks over the lifetime of a well, Walker said.

"Compared to coal, the footprint of shale gas is at least 20 percent greater and perhaps more than twice as great on the 20-year horizon and is similar when compared over 100 years," he said.

Published Nov. 28, 2012, in Allied News. Pick up a copy at 201A Erie St., Grove City.